Manet and Woman
Hamilton, Adrian, The Independent (London, England)
The Royal Academy claims its new exhibition of the painter Edouard Manet is the largest so far in Britain and the first to be devoted to his portraiture. Can it really be true of an artist whose work is so well known over here, of whom one thought there was nothing to left say beyond glorying in his deep blacks, those wondrous whites and the endless experiments with traditional forms put to new work in contemporary life?
The answer is that there is always something fresh to be learnt about this most sociable and elusive of artists, friend of most of the novelists and critics of his day, revered as a radical father figure by younger artists and respected as a regular contributor to the salons of the establishment. Portraiture, which he pursued in oil and later in pastel throughout his relatively brief career of some two decades (he died aged 51 in 1883), is as good a way as any of exploring his varied works.
Not that you go to Manet for penetrating portraiture. Although he used models as well as friends and insisted on painting only from prolonged and frequent sittings, it wasn't to explore the character or dig deep into the psyche of his subjects. It was to comment on their place through their appearance. All Manet's works were an assault. All, except for the flower paintings so derided by modern curators, were efforts to catch something of the contemporary world about him. Each time he took brush to canvas, as his friend the poet Mallarm recorded, "he plunges headlong into it, "explaining that "the eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew from the lesson before it."
Very few of his extensive number of portraits were commissioned. Manet, the son of wealthy parents and a notable figure among artistic circles from early on, didn't need to earn his crust this way. Instead he painted his family, particularly his wife, the Dutch- born Suzanne Leenhoff, and her illegitimate son, Lon, friends from among his wide circle of cultural contacts, professional models and, especially in his later years, pretty young women of his acquaintance. Some works he sold but many he kept back, half finished or roughly sketched.
What was it that he was seeking from these pictures? The simplest answer is "realism", the observation of what was new and contemporary, which his mentor, the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, proclaimed as the true test of modern art. Realism meant not just painting accurately from life, but stripping art of all the connotations of moral lesson and monumentality as in traditional art. The new hero was the man about town, the observer, the dandy.
But realism in portraiture for Manet - as Baudelaire, who didn't regard his friend as the best exponent of his philosophy, judged - was never a matter of recording the face and figure with verisimilitude. "I cannot do anything without the model," declared Manet. "I do not know how to invent If I amount to anything today, I put it down to precise interpretation and faithful analysis." But it was the "interpretation" and "analysis" that made him so different.
With the men it was to convey what they meant for the world about them. His pictures are as much a comment as a rendering of the man. Portrait of Zacharie Astruc, the writer and critic who had done much to support him in his early years, is divided into two parts. On the right Astruc sits somewhat pompously with his hand thrust into his jacket, while to the left is seen his wife in the kitchen, along with the symbols of the domestic life which underpins him.
The portrait of Emile Zola, another great supporter, arranges the novelist with the attributes of his art criticism, an open book on Spanish art in his hand, a Japanese print and a print of the Olympia nude above his desk. It is a worthy portrait painted in gratitude for the support Manet received when he needed it, but it suggests also a comment on the over-intellectualisation of art criticism. The pictures of the statesman Georges Clemenceau and the journalist and politician, his childhood friend Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel Proust) have determination and strength but also a self- conscious posing which subverts their importance. …