Art in 19th century France was particularly important in society as not only was it a medium for documenting historical events, but it was also seen by the upper and middle classes as a popular form of entertainment. But society imposes rules upon itself, as it did in the flourishing art world of Paris at this time. The presiding factor limiting striving artists of the time centered around The Salon – the dominant influence of traditional artistic practice. The Salon hosted annual or bi-annual art exhibitions that at the time were thought of as the greatest and most official art exhibitions in the Western world. Many artists would submit their works to be exhibited at The Salon, but only a select few would gain entry into this prestigious and academic community, having conformed to the rigid artistic conventions. Like The Academy in London, The Salon advocated that art must be traditional in subject matter and technique. To have work exhibited in such establishments, artists had to commit to morally uplifting subject matters, preferably historical or religious, which utilised stylistic features such as traditional Renaissance perspective and conservatism. Naturally, this criteria was restrictive. It was also difficult to represent such idealised subjects – a reality far from the contemporary society these artists lived in. However, the 1848 revolution not only resulted in a change of government, but a more liberalised Salon which allowed a wider array of up and coming socio-politically aware artists to try their chance at mainstream success. One of these aspiring artists was Edouard Manet. In this essay I will explore the range of stylistic features that have influenced Manet, linking his radical masterpieces with his personal beliefs surrounding the nature of politics and modernity, showing him as an innovative artist diverging from traditional practice in 19th century France.
Manet presents himself as an independent and modern artist having said that, “one must be of one’s time, and paint what one sees”. In Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), Manet takes a contemporary picnic scene and evolves it into a sexually-powered controversial masterpiece. Having traced influences from early Venetian art masters, Manet’s style was original and unique, a snythesis of variety. This work was frowned upon by 19th century French society as not only was the depiction of a naked woman in a common scene outrageous, but it fell into the category of ‘genre’ painting, which dealt with the seemingly simple moments of every day life. The Salon did not endorse genre painting and there was no way this work was going to be accepted into the annual exhibition. Technically, this painting may have seemed slightly amateur to the traditionalists at the time of its debut as there is little spatial recession making the four figures look flat as if placed upon a tapestry-like background. Perhaps due to the pastel shading surrounding her, the woman in the background seems to hover above the trio of figures in the foreground, creating a fanciful sense of reality. Furthering the idea of this idyllic and playful environment is Manet’s loose brushwork, which sweeps delicately across the canvas conjuring a feeling of luxury and pleasure.
Manet’s influence by past Renaissance masters is seen here in the composition and subject matter which is similar to Titian’s Concert Champetre (1509). With a feathered and sketchy brushwork, Titian’s masterpiece depicts an idyllic setting of two middle class men and two naked women possibly having a picnic. The nude females in Titian’s painting gracefully encompass the two men in the centre of the image, enclosing them in a metaphoric state of peace and implied eroticism. Titian renders his voluptuous women elegantly, casting them in a soft and romantic light. In contrast, Manet’s use of a strong directional light emphasises the nakedness of the woman, drawing attention to the contrast between the darkened background and her soft milky flesh. This draws attention to her strong gaze, which holds the viewers’ eye, creating an air of ambiguous erotic tension. Using the symbol of fruit in the lower left region of the canvas to further imply the notion of fertility, this painting is essentially modern in that it reflects a new contemporary world, where sexuality is liberalised and not so sacred as it had been in the years prior. The men are fully clothed and with the use of soft lines and their particular poses, they appear to be at ease and relaxed around the naked female, enjoying her company. By having the central female figure naked, Manet presents her as a modern and independent woman, and implies she is a lady of easy virtue. The fact that Manet makes reference to a traditional work such as Concert Champetre, is as if he is trying to validate the controversial subject matter of this painting, which the Emperor himself is said to have declared “an offense to good morals.” It treats a risqué subject seriously and it is perhaps because of this, that society in 19th century France found this work unpleasantly revolutionary.
Such radical subject matter is seen in another of Manet’s 1863 works, Olympia. It is believed that the production of this work was the catalyst that brought Manet many social and political attacks, as well as a desirous fame that marked him as the quintessential modern artist.
Painted only a few months after Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia was a revolutionary advancement, with a glaringly shameless subject matter of a modern woman reclining naked on a bed, with her breasts fully exposed, tantalising the hungry eyes of fellow contemporary men at a brothel. It is perhaps significant to note that the focus is more on the conceptual rather than perceptual elements of this picture, meaning that one should read this painting as a personification of modernity and the radical changes that were taking place in Europe.Manet saturates the model in a harsh white light, emphasising her rigid and hard body. Although he was not a symbolist painter, Manet does incorporate a dark-skinned maid who, typically at the time, was associated with the seedy world of sex and debauchery. She offers Olympia flowers, a gift from an admirer perhaps, making reference to the woman’s ambiguous beauty. Furthering this sense of unease is the black cat to the right of the picture, an icon of superstition lurking between shadows.
An identifiable woman of her time, Victorine Meurent represented the sort of Parisienne that many a Salon visitor kept hidden from his wife. This ‘portrait’ therefore, captures and exposes a dominant part of society that many people wanted nothing to do with, but were inevitably a part of. Thus, this painting was seen as a scandal and as a result, Manet had become the centre of public ridicule.
As a man of his times, Manet not only rebelled stylistically against the conservative status quo of the art world, such as his striking flattening of space, but he also expressed his concerns for the changing world around him through bold and startling subject matter. Coming from a deeply Republican family, it is highly possible that Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867-1869) was really a “slap” at Napoleon Boneparte’s Mexican adventure.
As well as producing work with underlying political comments, Manet also expressed an inner feeling of indifference, a feeling of dejection that many artists of the avant garde movement felt. In the case of artists battling the art establishment, Manet saw himself inevitably as an outsider of society. Such feelings of despondency can be seen in his earlier work of 1858-59, The Absinthe Drinker. The work depicts an inebriated man in dark clothing leaning on a street bench with the Absinthe glass beside him and the empty bottle cast down in a state of carelessness at his feet. This drink was very intoxicating, quickly effecting those who drank it. The man looks to his right, a sideways glance shying from the viewers’ eye, as if avoiding reality – a trouble he must face every day. Mirroring this hazy escapism from modernity, Manet paints in loose brushstrokes and uses shadows to further express perhaps his own feelings of loneliness and rejection. The ground is a gaudy yellow, creating a sickening contrast, reflecting the artist’s inner conflict between his personal artistic and social beliefs and his desire for mainstream success.
Manet’s vast array of influences ranging from Renaissance Venetian art to the hustle and bustle of contemporary life, culminate in a totally new and unique artistic style that suggests Manet not only as the father of Impressionism, but as one of the quintessential painters of modernity. Despite failing many times to gain entry into The Salon, Manet’s radical flattening of space teamed with his controversial subject matters show him as a realist artist, painting his true perceptions of what he sees around him. Unmasking some aspects of society that people thought were better kept hidden, Manet presents himself undoubtedly as a revolutionary artist, bravely deviating from what was the traditional practice of 19th century France.