Édouard Manet: What Are His Most Famous Works? – ARTnews.com
French artist Édouard Manet is often credited with bridging the gap between two of the most important art movements of the 19th century, Realism and Impressionism. though he once wrote that he “had no intention of overthrowing the old methods of painting, or creating new ones”, his radical innovations in color composition and narrative did just that. He rejected the conservative sensibilities of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the organization responsible for the most prestigious salons in Paris, by largely forgoing religious or allegorical themes in favor of depictions of bourgeois life, which, at the time, was jarring to many. To the shock and scandal of the academy (not to mention the public), he painted life-size paintings of waitresses, courtesans, and bullfights, earning him the veneration of the avant-garde artists who would later be known as Impressionists. (Manet never identified with his movement, however.)
Manet was born into an upper-class family that envisioned for him a life of military service or law: his father was a civil servant in the French justice ministry, his mother the goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince. To his disappointment, Manet failed the training entrance exam twice as a teenager and was eventually allowed to enroll in art school in Paris. There, he drew artworks at the Louvre (where he met Edgar Degas), drawing inspiration from Gustave Courbet’s rejection of romanticism and Diego Velázquez’s baroque colors.
Unfortunately, it took most of his life for his own paintings to achieve critical or financial success; he died on April 30, 1883, a year after his painting of a bar at the folies-bergère debuted to mixed reviews at the salon. “Insults are raining down on me. Someone must be wrong, ”the artist once wrote in a letter to his friend, the French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire, who, along with the writer Émile Zola, was one of Manet’s most ardent defenders. Manet would be heartened to learn that today his paintings sell for more than $65 million. Here’s a guide to some of the most famous works by one of the fathers of European modernism.
lunch on the grass, 1863
manet’s lunch on the grass debuted at the salon des refusés, an exhibition of works that had been rejected from the official paris salon by the conservative panel of judges. A scandal ensued, causing outrage and laughter from the crowds that poured into the Palais des Champs-Elyées to view the painting. It was not the sitter’s nudity that was subversive (Manet had drawn heavily from Titian’s beloved 1509 Pastoral Concerto) but her placement in a mundane setting alongside clothed men. the composition was interpreted as a reference to the widespread but under-recognized sex work taking place in French parks. modern audiences can only assume that manet intended to be subversive, as he wrote in a letter to the writer antonin proust in 1862, “then you would prefer me to do a nude, right? ok, I’ll do a nude…. then I guess they’ll really tear me apart.”
Manet’s Olympia was accepted by the Salon of 1865, where it aroused harsh criticism. The painting features a nude woman (same model as lunch, Victorine Meurent) sprawled out on a bed while a servant attends to her. Taking Titian’s Venus of Urbino as a reference, Manet painted a series of details that signified the woman as a sex worker: the decorative slippers, the orchid behind her ear, the bracelet and pearls, and the offered bouquet, which can be interpreted as a gift from his employer. a black cat slides off the edge of the bed. Manet again eschews the Renaissance tradition of soft blending in favor of rapid brushstrokes and intense lighting, further humanizing the subject. The painting was deemed offensive on debut, though his friend Monet eventually convinced the curators to put it on display at the Musée du Luxembourg. (now owned by the musée d’orsay in paris). more recently, curators such as denise murrell have drawn from painting to consider how 19th-century European artists represented race.
manet visited spain in 1865 and, although the trip lasted just over a week, it left a deep impression on the painter, who had long been impressed by 17th-century spanish art. Lively scenes of Spanish life began to appear in his paintings, including a series on bullfights, which he described to his friend Baudelaire as “one of the most beautiful, curious, and terrifying spectacles to be seen.” in bullfights he describes the tense moment before the action, when the bull and the matador face each other. next to them, a gored horse lies prostrate. When combined with the bold strokes that make up the Hungry Multitude, Manet creates a palpable tension: the stillness that precedes the frenzy.
the balcony, 1869
it was fashionable to paint scenes of bourgeois life, but the balcony defied convention with its enigmatic narrative and unusual perspective. berthe morisot, a fellow impressionist and close friend of manet, is seated in the foreground. Behind her is the painter Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet, while on the right is the violinist Fanny Claus. Semi-enshrouded in the background is another unidentified male figure. the balcony was not well received when it was shown in the salon of 1869, the image being considered formally unpalatable. one reviewer wrote, “manet has stooped to the point of being in competition with the painters in the building trade,” while another commented, “close the blinds!” Manet refused to sell the painting during his lifetime. After his death in 1883, it was purchased by the impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte, who bequeathed the painting to the French government in 1894.
portrait of Emile Zola, 1868
Émile Zola, renowned French critic and novelist, was an early admirer of the Impressionists and of Manet, whom he considered especially unknown (“the future is yours,” Zola wrote after watching lunch on the grass). In 1866, he wrote a flattering review of Manet and again defended him the following year at an independent Manet exhibition organized outside the Exposition Universelle. In gratitude, Manet offered to paint Zola. The portrait is populated with objects representative of Zola’s profession and personality, such as newspapers, an inkwell, and feathers. Manet even painted a small version of Olympia, which the writer regarded as Manet’s masterpiece, on the wall behind Zola. On Zola’s wall also hangs an engraving by Velázquez, whom Manet considered “the greatest painter that ever lived.”
berthe morisot with a bouquet of violets, 1872
manet began to broaden his color palette after being influenced by the pastel landscapes of the impressionists, but he never fully abandoned his affinity for black, illustrated here in the portrait of his close friend, the impressionist berthe morisot. Unlike his other paintings, which are largely painted in uniform light, Manet chose to illuminate only half of Morisot’s face here, creating a dramatic interplay of light and shadow. he holds a bouquet of violets that blends into the dark fold of his dress. Manet’s circle considered the work a masterpiece, and French writer Paul Valery wrote in his foreword to the catalog of Manet’s 1932 retrospective at the Musée de l’Orangerie, “I rank nothing in Manet’s work higher than a certain portrait of berthe morisot dated 1872.”
a bar at the folies-bergère, 1882
This large-scale painting was the last major work Manet completed before his death in 1883, debuting at the 1882 Paris Salon. Since then, viewers have been trying to solve the puzzle of its composition, while the waitress he stares before a wall of mirrors that reflects not his viewer, as reality would demand, but rather the boisterous crowd. and against all logic, the reflection of the waitress and a gentleman with whom she converses are displaced to the right. the folies-bergère was a well-known venue in paris, attracting acts that would later be considered indecent, such as circus performers and dancers. modern scholars have also surmised that her waitresses doubled as sex workers. Of his paintings, A Bar at Folies-Bergère is perhaps the most representative of Manet’s innovations, drawing on common images to offer complicated formal experiments.