The Shifting Styles of Manet’s People

LONDON — Édouard Manet, a mainstream Impressionist? It will be a lot harder to see him as such after viewing the exhibition “Manet: Portraying Life,” which opened Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Manet painted ''Boy Blowing Bubbles'' in 1867. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon

One wonders how such a characterization could have remained since Manet’s death in 1883. If reality transformed into coloristic impressions is the defining feature of Impressionism, there is not much of that in the French master’s oeuvre as seen in an art show that puts Manet in a new perspective.

Scrutinizing his fellow humans was a major concern with Manet, although hardly with the leading Impressionists, whether Monet, Pissarro or Sisley.

Manet, born in 1832, had enjoyed a long career by the time the 1874 show that later became known as the “First Impressionist Exhibition” was organized. Tellingly enough, he refused to take part in it, not because he spurned the movement — he lent the show pictures by Renoir and Berthe Morisot — but because Manet was a very different kind of modernist.

Unlike Monet or Pissarro, Manet was profoundly influenced by 17th- and 18th-century masters and did not make a militant effort to break with the past.

“The Smoker,” done in 1866, owes its subject to Dutch 17th-century genre painting, and also its color scheme. Purplish brown and black are the dominant tonalities. The salmon-pink face and hands and the touches of white in the pipe are just enough to emphasize the overall darkness of the composition.

A year later, Manet portrayed a “Boy Blowing Bubbles.” Here too, the subject was dealt with by Dutch 17th-century painters. While the careful balance of the composition is steeped in tradition, the picture is strikingly modern: The figure of the boy almost leaps out of the frame. The forward thrust of the body, and the contrasted light effects give the portrait an abruptness and expressiveness that hit the viewer in the face. This is a revolutionary work that has little to do with Impressionism.

The brush is sketchily wielded, but that sketchiness goes back to the 17th-century portraiture of Frans Hals, greatly admired by Manet. The boy stares ahead above the viewer’s head, intensely concentrating on blowing out the perfect soap bubble. This visual parable on futility could not be further removed from the occasional portraits done in a benign mood by Renoir or Monet in the 1870s and 1880s.

Impressionism rapidly progressed from about 1870, and yet, Manet’s “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets,” which dates from 1872, shows no trace of it. The portrait is in the modernist vein of 1866, with a sharper edge. The intense black of the woman’s dress and hat, set off by the pale background with yellowish streaks, gives it an abrupt expressiveness at odds with the softness of Impressionism. Manet’s deepest inclinations come out best in those portraits that he never allowed to be displayed in his lifetime. In 1874, the artist painted a likeness of Berthe Morisot who was mourning her father’s death. The same dense black dominates in a color scheme made even darker by the nearly black background. Rarely was distress conveyed so expressively. The brushwork applied in violent strokes seems to tear apart the sitter’s figure in a way that anticipates German Expressionism by more than three decades.

When executing another portrait of the young woman dated by some to 1868-’69 and by others to 1870-’71, Manet may have remembered Francisco Goya’s portraits of the 1780s and 1790s. The handling of the dress is so broad that the picture could be mistaken for an unfinished work. It is unlike anything seen in French painting around that time. This portrait too was never publicly displayed in Manet’s lifetime, as if the revolutionary artist preferred to keep to himself his most daring modernist experiments.

Never short of inventions, the astonishingly versatile Manet could afford to set aside his excessively bold portraits.

''The Railway,'' 1873, by Édouard Manet. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer

“In the Garden” is a little-known masterpiece on loan from the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, that has defied attempts at identifying the young woman in the foreground. The date of execution remains uncertain. The composition, deliberately off-balance, gives the impression that the painter is looking at the sitter from a slightly higher vantage point. The downward slanting ground irresistibly calls to mind the perspective effects that Gustave Caillebotte would start contriving around 1879.

Manet displayed a surprising readiness to meander between his various modern-oriented styles on one hand and his more timeless portraiture tying in with past masters on the other.

Gazing at the pastel “Portrait of Eva Gonzalès” — a true Impressionist artist who is greatly underestimated — some will be reminded of Goya’s ladies with prim but inscrutable expressions. Were it not for the hairdo and the V-neck of the barely suggested blouse in the head-and-shoulders sketch drawn from life, the pastel could pass for late 18th-century work.

In startling contrast, the life-size portrait of the same sitter done in oils in 1879 is in the neutral naturalistic style that Manet often practiced from the 1860s for commissions from the establishment. Eva is putting finishing touches or making corrections to a still-life on an easel, already in its gilded frame. A certain sketchiness in the dress fails to redeem the blandness of the picture.

Curiously, this 1879 work does not greatly differ in style from a much earlier portrait of a “Lady With a Fan” done in 1862.

There, the actress Jeanne Duval is seen reclining on a bed, with her enormous white crinoline spilling over the edge. The sketchiness of the white dress and of the lace curtain that hangs at the back is almost the same as in the portrait of Eva Gonzalès at her easel. Few masters of the 19th-century displayed that ability or simply the willingness to keep up the same manner over such a long period. Fewer still enjoyed Manet’s facility at wielding vastly different styles within weeks.

The result was not uniformly felicitous. “Lady With a Fan” is not particularly well painted. The right hand extended to touch the face is disproportionately big and does not convincingly connect with the body. It is hard to believe that the actress would have been happy with the wooden expression that the painter caught. No wonder that Manet still had the portrait in his studio on his death — and that it was never displayed while he was alive. The great man may not have thought too highly of it himself.

Painting in his more advanced styles was no safeguard against mediocrity.

The portrait of the Irish poet, playwright and novelist George Moore was done in the artist’s garden around that same year, 1879. Its very loose impressionistic manner does not make up for its clumsiness. The portrait is not fully finished as the shapeless hands suggest. The artist may have discarded it, dissatisfied with his achievement. Unsurprisingly, that one too remained dumped in Manet’s studio until his death.

Several other crass mediocrities unnecessarily clutter the show. Manet’s 1876 life-size portrait of the kitsch painter Carolus-Duran, in which the head alone is finished, qualifies as an outright daub.

That the same artist should have produced around the same time such marvelous works as “Isabelle Lemonnier with a White Collar” on loan from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, is in itself a discovery. Duds and masterpieces could succeed each other within months in the same year. Admirable as he may be, Manet comes out here as an uneven artist.

More surprisingly, masterpieces in the same mood and a closely similar manner were sometimes painted at long intervals, somehow unaffected by the changing trends at work around the artist. “The Luncheon” dated 1868 loaned by the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and “The Railway” of 1873 from the National Gallery in London, equally unforgettable, have much in common. Here a man, there a woman, stare at some distant point with an interrogation aimed at no one.

It is as if both were marveling about human condition. Or, some may be tempted to think, about this master’s own disconcerting lack of consistency and, perhaps, of any deeply held aesthetic convictions.


By Souren Melikian