Edouard Manet was born into the ranks of the Parisian bourgeoisie on January 29, 1832. His Mother, Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, was a woman of refinement and god daughter of Charles Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. Manet's father, Auguste Manet, was a magistrate and judge who hoped that Manet would someday follow in his footsteps, but Manet was destined to follow another path.
Although well educated, Manet did not particularly excel within the academic environment but he showed a propensity toward drawing and the arts. His Uncle Charles Fournier encouraged Manet’s appreciation for the arts and often took him and his childhood friend, Antonin Proust, on outings to the Louvre. In 1850 after serving in the merchant marines, Manet entered the studio of Thomas Couture where he studied until 1856. Manet was influenced by the old masters, particulary Velazquez and Goya, but Manet reasoned that ones paintings should reflect ideas and ideals of the present rather then the past. So disagreeing with Diderot’s theory that great paintings only reflected the costume of the past, Manet sought instead to follow the advice of Baudelaire...to depict a contemporary realism, to be "le peintre de la vie moderne."
It’s worthwhile to note that it was during this time that Paris launched its massive revitalization and modernization of the city under the supervision of Baron Haussmann. Up until 1852, the city had retained its medieval infrastructure which was now becoming most inadequate due to the growing urban population. Haussmann’s revitalization efforts not only affected the physical environment of Paris but the cultural and social atmosphere as well. Thousands of jobs were created as streets were widened and lengthened, store fronts redesigned, buildings torn down and redeveloped all in an effort to make Paris the most beautiful and culturally progressive city in the world. It was this modernity with which Manet chose to concern himself.
Manet began his career with The Absinthe Drinker (1858), a painting depicting a debauched and solitary man amongst the shadows of the back streets of Paris. Paintings like the Absinthe Drinker, and the Old Musician (1862), portray a darker aspect of Parisian life which was quite removed from Manet’s circle, but nonetheless very real. La Musique aux Tuileries (1862) peopled with Manet’s friends and family celebrates fashionable society. His loose handling of paint and lack of subject separated this painting from the highly finished paintings approved of by the academy, and accepted by the Salon. In addition, the painting’s ambience anticipates the “snapshot” quality taken up so well by Degas, and developed further by the Impressionists.
Spanish Guitar Player, also painted in 1862, reflected the Parisian love of "all things Spanish" and was one of Manet’s first paintings to be accepted by the Salon. It now hangs on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Manet put great emphasis on Salon acceptance. In fact, Manet believed that success as an artist could only be obtained through recognition at the Salon. Ironically, however, it was not Spanish Guitar Player which brought Manet his much sought after recognition but the rejected Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). The Salon jury of 1863 had been exceptionally brutal and thousands of paintings had been refused. To counter these refusals, the Salon des Refuses was established and it was here that Dejeuner sur l’herbe (also known as the Luncheon on the Grass) was exhibited. Although influenced by Raphael and Giorgione, Dejeuner did not bring Manet laurels and accolades. It brought criticism. Critics found Dejuener to be anti-academic and politically suspect and the ensuing fire storm surrounding this painting has made Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe a benchmark in academic discussions of modern art. The nude in Manet’s painting was no nymph, or mythological being...she was a modern Parisian women cast into a contemporary setting with two clothed man. Many found this to be quite vulgar and begged the question "Who’s for lunch?" The critics also had much to say about Manet’s technical abilities. His harsh frontal lighting and elimination of mid tones rocked ideas of traditional academic training. And yet, it is also important to understand that not everyone criticized Manet, for it was also Dejeuner which set the stage for the advent of Impressionism.
Olympia, also painted in 1863, caused a similar uproar and the controversy surrounding these two paintings truly dismayed Manet. It was not at all his intention to create a scandal. Manet was not a radical artist, such as Courbet; nor was he a bohemian, as the critics had thought. Recently married to Suzanne Leenhoff, the well mannered and well bred Manet was an immaculately groomed member of high society. As Henri Fantin-Latour’s Portrait of Manet suggests - this man was the quintessential Parisian flaneur. But Manet’s unique technical innovations intrigued the likes of Pierre Renoir and Claude Monet and set free the traditional and conservative reigns of academic painting.
Political events between the years 1867-1871 were turbulent ones for Paris, and the Franco-Prussian war left Paris besieged and defeated. Manet turned his eye to these events in his paintings entitled Execution of Maximilian, Civil War and The Barricade. In 1870, Manet sent his family south to protect them from the fighting in Paris and signed on as a gunner in the National Guard. There is much primary documentation in the form of letters to family and friends which expresses Manet’s horror and dismay at the war and these paintings stand as testaments to Manet’s sentiments. The Execution of Maximilian (1868) reaches out to Goya’s Third of May but despite its masterly influence the painting was banned from being exhibited in Paris due to the "Frenchness" of the executioners costume. And yet along with his expressions of political disillusionment, Manet also continued producing paintings such as The Balcony (1868), Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), and The Railroad (1872).
By 1874 Manet’s reputation as experimental artist and leader of the Impressionists was firmly established. The Cafe Guerbois, near Manet’s studio became the gathering spot for Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Pissaro and although Manet presided over the regular meeting and debates held at the cafe, he was not enthusiastic about his role as leader of the avant-garde. In 1874, when the Impressionists held their first exhibition at Nadar’s studio, Manet refused to participate. Manet chose instead to remain focused on the Salon. He never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions and yet by no means did Manet abandon the Impressionists. Manet worked closely with Monet in Argenteuil during 1874 and often gave financial support to his friends who needed it. It was during this time that Manet came closest to painting in the Impressionist style. Painting en plein air Argenteuil and Monet’s Boat Studio both approach the notions of reflected light and atmosphere of Impressionism but Manet never becomes assimilated into the true Impressionist style.
In his last great masterpiece, Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), Manet returns again to studio painting, a somber palette and eliminated mid tones. The cafe concert is a theme which Manet had been treating in the late 70’s in paintings such as Corner in a Cafe Concert and The Cafe. But here at Bar at the Folies-Bergere, we are no longer spectators, but participants in the painting. While the Barmaid occupies the center of the piece, the painting is filled with a menagerie of characters from seated couples to trapeze artists. Glittering chandeliers and electric lights fill the upper portion of the painting. Here, as in Dejeuner sur l’herbe, optical contradictions abound.
Throughout his oeuvre Manet painted modern day life, yet many of Manet paintings are so much more than simple mimetic depictions. If Manet’s paintings seems to be full of contradictions, or to employ a lack of perspective from time to time, then perhaps that was the true reality of Paris in Manet’s time. Always controversial, Manet sought to record the days of his life using his own unique vision. From beggars, to prostitutes, to the bourgeoisie Manet sought to be true to himself and to reproduce "not great paintings, but sincere paintings." Manet died, in Paris, on April 30, 1883.