I am not a fan of portraiture and the often accompanying cult of celebrity. Usually the subject of the portrait is more important than the artist who painted it or how they did so. I wasn’t too optimistic, therefore, heading for the Royal Academy’s exhibition Manet: Portraying Life. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the show. Yes, there were a couple of ‘celebrity’ rooms but these were very much the minority. Mostly it was how and why Manet painted the people he did.
Music in the Tuileries Gardens, Edouard Manet (1862)
One room had just one painting in it. This was Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The audio guide had an interesting description of it:
“It’s difficult to imagine the shock when this painting was first shown. To us it’s a rather calm, inoffensive picture of social life in the Tuileries Gardens with men and women out to enjoy themselves. There are recognisable figures, Manet, his brother, the composer Offenbach and so on, but when it was first shown it was famously attacked by a Parisian gallery goer with his walking stick. More recently the critic John Richardson called it ‘the first truly modern picture’.
“While it’s easy to get back to the shock of Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, it is harder to get back to the shock of this which has to do with the refusal, the decline, of perspective, the narrowing of the depth of field of the picture, the fact that the characters are not artfully arranged as they would be in a Salon picture, not grouped with movement between them, but they are lined up between the trees like guardsmen off duty.
“It was affronting to that gentleman who waved a stick at it because there are characters with their backs to us. There are the backs of chairs facing us instead of nice people with nice faces and, in the middle, possibly the most offensive, are two little girls playing, who look more like Velazquez dwarfs rather than pretty Parisian girls.
“It is a painting of the human clutter of the sophisticated crowd that would have gathered that afternoon in the Tuileries and Manet is saying ‘This is how it is. Now. And I’m not going to paint it otherwise.'”
As I’ve already mentioned, it was the only painting in the room and there was a large crowd in front of it, most of whom would have paid £15 to see the exhibition. What amused me was that the painting had travelled about a mile from the National Gallery where it normally could be studied for free.
One of my favourites in the exhibition was one of several portraits of Berthe Morisot. This photograph is by blogger Julie Eagleton, who has also reviewed the Manet exhibition.
In this painting, Berthe Morisot “appears in winter outdoor attire against a neutral background. By having her move through the picture space, briefly glancing at the viewer before passing out of the frame, Manet suspends this representation of his unofficial pupil and confidante between a straight portrait and a figure in a Paris street scene. Although Morisot’s form is convincingly delineated, the open brushwork and freedom of gesture suggests that the work may not have been considered fully resolved, a status that is reflected in the fact that it was neither exhibited during Manet’s lifetime nor in his 1884 memorial exhibition.”
Manet was not an Impressionist, in that he refused to exhibit at any of their exhibitions, believing that recognition for an artist could only come through the Salon. However, he influenced and was influenced by the Impressionists. One interesting painting in the show was of the Monet family.
The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil, Edouard Manet (1874)
This painting demonstrates that Manet was coming to an understanding of Monet and Renoir’s procedures. He’s placed his figures out of doors and he has painted them very freely and very rapidly. Manet later recalled that Renoir had turned up, seeing Manet at work, borrowed a canvas and paints to make his own record of the scene rather to Manet’s annoyance. What Renoir’s picture proves is that on the afternoon of 23rd July 1874 Manet, who usually painted in the controlled lighting of his studio, was out of doors painting Monet and his family directly on to canvas.
Camille Monet and Her Son Jean in the Garden at Argenteuil, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1874)
As St John might have said: “And there were many other paintings which are not written in this post. But these are written, that ye might believe.”