The Story of French Impressionism, Part I: Édouard Manet

In contrast to the bold, triumphant, and defined political works of earlier European painters, like Eugene Delacroix for example, the Impressionists were a more muted, subtle group of less defined painters, at least conventional wisdom instructs us so. The Impressionists give us only a glimpse of something, a passing blurred picture of motion; like a fading sunset over the ocean, people gathering in the park from a distance, couples sitting in a Parisian care, and so on. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that Impressionism is a kind of Hegelian reaction against emerging technologies, like photography, as well as the prevailing artistic establishment, like so-called “realism.” Perhaps to reduce Impressionists to mere reactionary impulses does a disservice to the movement. Perhaps not. Many of the works of Impressionism were accused of being unfinished, incomplete fragments, and as a result the movement garnered a reputation as a kind of iconoclastic movement. The story of Impressionism is the story of rebellion against conventional more, and in that way it is appealing to modern sensibilities -David will always be preferred to Goliath. At the same time, Impressionism appeals to the high class taste for leisure, as well as the low class desire for representation, to be seen and heard, with portrayals of peasants, immigrants, and working people. Uniquely, the Impressionists are also autobiographical. Their paintings tell the painter’s stories. 

Impressionism took hold at a time when painting was re-emerging from its cave. According to the classical tradition, painters piled into studios and hired models to sit for them, but gradually the en plen-air movement took root. In Italy painters like Macchiaioli began painting outside, and in the United States Winslow Homer took their artwork outside and launched a new plein-air painting movement. In France, four young painters who studied classical art together began wandering out into the countryside to paint in their own style. They were inspired, in part, by the light brushstrokes of their forefather, Édouard Manet (1832-1883), the “Father of Modernism.”

Image result for edouard manet 1870 photo(Édouard Manet photographed sometime around 1870)

Manet was born into a wealthy French family, but after rejecting a legal career and twice failing the naval exam, Manet’s father reluctantly allowed him to pursue a career in art. Manet’s early work matched the formulaic style of the time, copying the great works of the Louvre, however he began to turn his focus away from religious and allegorical imagery, to simple depictions of leisurely scenes in everyday life, such as cafes, parks, and so on. As his perspective shifted, he lost admirers from the French establishment, and gained friends among more rebellious corners of Paris, like Charles Baudelaire and Émile Zola, Manet’s strident defender. As such, Manet became friends with the young group of “Impressionists” when he led their now famous group discussions at the Café Guerbois, but he later distanced himself from the group as he preferred to display his works at the Salon, an establishment art showcase. Additionally, Manet preferred the use of black lines and dark colors, which many other Impressionists rejected. Despite being lambasted in the press for his early “shock-pieces”, Manet claimed to have no intention of upending traditional methods of painting. He was married in 1863 to his piano teacher and longtime lover, Suzanne Leenhoff. He continued to paint into later life, making money from his popular still-life pieces, until he suffered from what is likely syphilis. His left foot was amputated as a result, and he died eleven days later in 1883.

Here are some of Édouard Manet’s notable works:

In 1863, he created two highly controversial works that departed from his earlier, more conventional works, based on his classical training and copies of the masters in the Louvre-

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, or “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863)

Playing on classical motifs and 16th century Italian works by Raphael and Titian, Manet conveys a nude woman. She is scandalously positioned not in a mythological context, but rather in a casual encounter, perhaps a common picnic scenario. She is an ordinary woman in an ordinary situation.In the large-scale “The Luncheon on the Grass” painting, a nude woman sits while having a picnic with two fully clothed men in a dark forest. She has just bathed in the stream. In the background, a semi-nude woman is bathing in a stream. She almost appears as if painted onto a large backdrop. Her size is confusing. A boat sits upstream from her. The painting is a kind of parody of a pastoral scene, with a goddess and a water nymph. Note the lighting distinction in the foreground: the painting gets darker as it gets closer to the viewer, while the nude woman is blindingly bright. A still-life scene of fruit sits beside the nude woman. She stares at the viewer while her two compatriots converse with each other. They seem not be concerned with the two nude women. The scene gives the appearance of being staged, as evidenced by the unusual hat worn by the gentleman on the right, a hat typically worn indoors. The painting is notable for being so large, a size traditionally reserved for classical or religious imagery. It caused a sensational outcry upon its release and today it is likely Manet’s most famous work.

“The Luncheon on the Grass” was rejected for display at the Paris Salon, along with more than half the other works submitted in the year 1863, thus prompting Emperor Napoleon III to create the Salon des Refusés, an alternative Salon for rejected painters to display their work. Manet chose to do so at the ‘Salon of the Refused’.

Olympia (1863)

Again, reframing Titian’s Renaissance work, Manet was challenged to provide the Paris Salon with a nude work. He scandalously chose to convey a confidently posed prostitute, poised as an aristocrat but with a flower in her hair, a bracelet, and sandals (she is wearing one and the other is off). She is relaxed but confident, and clearly posing. She gazes directly at the viewer as if to court the audience, yet she covers her pubic region. She lays upon her white bed with a blanket or robe underneath. She is the modern Venus, a woman you might see walking down the street, but also with the capability to entice. A black servant-maid is interrupting the photographically-staged moment to deliver flowers from an admirer. The flower-delivery is the action of the painting. A black cat rises in the lower right as if suddenly scared. Olympia was a common colloquial name in reference to a prostitute in France. 

Olympia was accepted to the Paris Salon in 1865 amidst great outrage. Not surprising, considering the history of the Salon – a series of scandals for the upper class and fraught with infighting. Crowds came to the Salon merely to gawk and jeer at the Olympia, while it was comically reproduced and lambasted in the press.   

Note the similarities to Titian’s Venus d’Urbino painted between 1532-1534:

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Venus d’Urbino (1532-1534) By: Titian

In this classic renaissance painting we see an erotic Venus archetype reclining on her bed, a dog calmly curled up at her feet. She is nude save for her bracelet. It is sunset. In the background her maid rummages through her trousseau where her wedding dress would have been held. Perhaps she awaits her wedding. In her right hand is a small bouquet of roses. Perhaps she has been unfaithful to her betrothed, as suggested by her erotic pose. The true story of the painting remains mysterious, but it’s name was drawn from the Duchy of Urbino who quickly purchased it from Titian fearing that it would fall into the hands of someone else. Some suggest Manet was responding to a celebration of marriage and traditional femininity in Titian from this painting, while another argument suggests Manet is pointing to the humanizing and secular trends of the Renaissance as his heritage for the Olympia.

At any rate, not many of Manet’s later works rocked the French art establishment in quite the same way that his early pieces did. He developed something of a minor reputation for painting ordinary people, and outsiders, as evidenced below:

The Absinthe Drinker (1859)

The Spanish Singer (1860)

Edouard Manet - The Balcony - Google Art Project.jpgLe Balcon “The Balcony” (1868-1869)

Manet was also keen to paint his close friends. “The Balcony” borrows heavily from Francisco Goya. The setting is an outdoor balcony. It features prominently Berthe Morisot, an Impressionist painter and friend of Manet. She married Manet’s brother and in the painting she sits, silently and heroically looking at the activity below. Morisot was featured in many other Manet paintings. Also featured are Fanny Claus, a violinist who gazes directly at the viewer, and painter Antoine Guillemet. A blurry figure in the background is likely Manet’s son. Also depicted is a small dog and a hydrangea plant. Le Balcon was not particularly well received by the establishment. 

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868)

Emile Zola, the boyhood friend of Cézanne, was also one of the most ardent defenders of Manet in his rebellion against prevailing French aristocratic art sensibilities. He once prophesied that Manet would hang in the Louvre, a true prognostication. In his portrait above, Zola sits with his writing in front of small copies of Manet’s Olympia, along with Velazquez’s Bacchus, as well as some Japanese art – a culture which had a significant influence on the Impressionists.

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868)

This painting was obviously completed in heavy tribute to Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) as pictured below. Manet’s piece is part of a series of five pieces depicting the second emperor of Mexico when Napoleon’s empire briefly ruled over Mexico. However, he pulled French troops out of Mexico in 1866, and shortly thereafter Mexican opposition forces captured Maximilian and executed him by firing squad. The news shocked French audiences.

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado thin black margin.jpg
The Third of May 1808 (1814) By: Francisco Goya

Image result for The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil (1874)The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil (1874)

While Manet and Monet had a rocky relationship early on, with Manet believing Monet had copied his style, they eventually grew to develop a friendship. During the summer of 1874 Manet vacationed at his family’s home in Gennevilliers, across the Seine from Monet at Argenteuil. They spent a great deal of time together and were occasionally joined by Renoir. While Manet was painting this picture of the Monet family in their garden, Renoir arrived and also painted the same scene right beside Manet (pictured below).

Image result for Madame Monet and Her Son (1874) By: Auguste RenoirMadame Monet and Her Son (1874) By: Auguste Renoir

 

Boating (1874)

Boating was also painted during the summer of 1874 when he spent a great deal of time with Monet and Renoir. The male character may be Manet’s brother-in-law.


The Rue Monsier with Flags (1878)

After the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, the urban streets of Paris were decorated to celebrate the occasion. Notice, a crippled man on crutches hobbling down the rue, followed by a man with a ladder. Perhaps he is placing more French flags above the street. Up ahead are some carriages of wealthy people out for the day, celebrating French patriotism.

Image result for Autoportrait à la palette “Self-Portrait with Palette” (1879)Autoportrait à la palette “Self-Portrait with Palette” (1879)

A late work of Manet, one of two self-portraits. He is notably dressed in fashionable attire, something not typically worn by an artist while painting, and the image is mirrored as Manet was assuredly not left-handed. The painting is inspired by Diego Velázquez’s famous stylized self-portrait.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.jpgA Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-1882)

Manet’s last major work was this eccentric bar scene, set in a popular nightclub in Paris. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1882. The scene is the Folies-Bergère bar and nightclub in Paris. A real woman, Suzon a bar-maid, is the subject. She stands in the foreground, staring at the viewer, as if to ask: “what would you like?” She seems forlorn and detached. She is a worker amidst a sea of lavish entertainment. She stands in front of a large wall-length mirror behind the bar. A confusing optical illusion takes place as a gentleman in a top hat appears to be talking to her, however he is actually standing to the left of the viewer, gazing straight ahead. Her off-center reflection to the right is jarring to the viewer, confusing our perspective in an already morally ambiguous modern world. In addition, we do not see our reflection in the mirror, or maybe we do not see ourselves in this world, though Manet seems to orient us as consumers. In front of Suzon is a bright bowl of oranges, flowers in a cup, and a variety of alcoholic beverages on a marble countertop. The beverages are all commodities and invite comparison to Suzon -to what extent has she too become a commodity? In the reflected background is a large, blurred crowd of nightclub attendees enjoying a raucous evening. Above them a pair of feet dangle –the feet of an acrobatic trapeze artist dancing over them. Questions abound regarding this obscure painting, and everyone from Michel Foucault to Guy de Maupassant has endeavored to decipher its mysterious code.

Manet’s later life was focused on painting upper echelon female portraits as well as still-life paintings to supply the market demand. His financial security came from his mainly unremarkable still-life pieces, always a popular form of painting, but his reputation was always staked on his high drama, larger than life early pieces. He is sometimes referred to as the bridge between “realism” and “modernism.”

Coeur fidèle (1923) Review

Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart) (1923) Director: Jean Epstein

★★★★☆

Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart) is a beautiful, reflective French Impressionist film which introduces a sobering cinematic language created by French auteur Jean Epstein. Jean Epstein once said: its purpose was “to win the confidence of those, still so numerous, who believe that only the lowest melodrama can interest the public… to create a melodrama so stripped of all the conventions ordinarily attached to the genre, so sober, so simple, that it might approach the nobility and excellence of tragedy.”

The slowly unfolding plot of this film tells the story of an orphaned girl who works as a server in a coastal bar in Marseille. The bar owner (her step-father) and his wife mistreat her. There is also a local abusive man named Petit Paul who lusts after her, but she is secretly in love with a man named Jean. One day she is forced to leave with Paul, while Jean patiently waits for her at their typical meeting place. When she doesn’t arrive, he traces her to the fairgrounds and confronts Petit Paul in a brawl that ends with a policeman being stabbed. In the chaos, Paul escapes but Jean is imprisoned and blamed for the fight.

One year later, he is released from prison. She (Marie) and Petit Paul now have a baby together and live unhappily as he spends all their money on drinking. Jean attempts to help Marie via a neighbor, an odd crippled woman, but when Paul catches word of a potential rekindled romance he attempts to confront Jean with a gun. Their neighbor steals the gun and shoots and kills Paul instead. In the end, Marie and Jean are free to live happily together, though they cannot live ‘happily ever after’ as the experience they have lived through has taken a toll on their lives.

French Impressionism (in cinema) was a movement in France in the 1920s, not unlike the German Expressionist movement. Examples of Impressionistic films include: Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) or La Roue (1922) or Napoleon (1926), Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle (1923) or The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921), Louis Delluc’s La Femme de nulle part (1922), and Jean Renoir’s Nana (1926). It is a difficult movement to characterize, however they are typically grouped together by more sophisticated cinema gurus who make note of similar montage sequences.

Jean Epstein (1897-1953) was a noted film director in the French Impressionist movement in the 1920s, as well as a literary critic. He was born in Poland and raised in Switzerland before moving to France and learning the film business under Auguste Lumiere. He directed his first film in 1922 and made his most noted films between 1923 and 1928, with Luis Buñuel working as an assistant director on his noted film version of the Fall of the House of Usher (1928).

J’accuse (1919) Review

J’accuse (1919) Director: Abel Gance

J'accusePoster.jpg

★★★★★

Like other films in Abel Gance’s incredible silent film repertoire, J’accuse is a grandiose achievement. The contemporary edited-down version lasts nearly three hours, but the original was 14 reels long and Gance shot much of the harrowing footage on location in World War I trenches (the film features real WWI soldiers in the final cut). Why is it titled J’accuse? Gance claims he intended to accuse everyone, to place everyone on trial with this film: he points the finger at ignorant citizens, greedy politicians, war-hungry businessmen, and so on. Allusions to Emile Zola abound.

The technical quality of J’accuse is extraordinary and the story unfolds in a compelling manner. It is surely one of the great early anti-war films. D.W. Griffith often receives all the credit for being the master of early silent epics, but Abel Gance is indeed a more worthy genius. His poetry is cleverly told across the silent screen replete with images of scenic beauty.

The film begins in an idyllic, small-town in Provence, France. When World War I begins the citizenry, bands of young men, flock to enlist in the army. Among them is Francois, a large and aggressive man who is married to Edith, daughter of an elderly French veteran. However, he catches her in a secret romance with a poet, Jean Diaz. Angry, Francois sends his wife away to stay with his mother, but she is captured by German soldiers and promptly raped. Jean does not enlist (he is a pacifist) but eventually he is forced to enlist when his hometown is captured and occupied by the Germans.

Meanwhile on the frontlines Jean and Francois find themselves serving together in the same battalion, skeptical of one another. Jean eventually returns home due to poor health (trench fever) in the trenches, but he finds his mother on her deathbed and Edith returns with an infant German baby. They try to hide the baby from Francois when he returns home, but he quickly grows jealous and violent, remembering their earlier affair. The two men fight until the truth is revealed and they ultimately exact vengeance on the Germans back on the front. In the final battle, Francois dies and Jean suffers from extreme shell-shock. He has a notable vision of dead soldiers arising from the battlefield and walking back to their homeland. He returns to his mother’s home and he angrily tears up a book of his poems. He stops on his “Ode to the Sun” and shouts out at the sun as the land deteriorates into a destroyed wasteland on the frontline. He blames the sun for the crimes of the war, and then he collapses in death on the ground, and the film concludes.

Abel Gance had been denied service in the French army due to ill heath during WWI (he had contracted tuberculosis), and this discharge ultimately saved his life and served as the true inspiration for the film. The scene at the end of the film showcasing Jean’s dark vision actually featured over 2,000 French soldiers in the south of France who appear to rise from the ground and return home. These extras had come straight from the front and had to return only a few days later, many of them would never again grace their homes but their legacy lives on in this impressive silent film. It is a ghostly reminder of all that was lost. J’accuse was a financial success upon its release in France, and Abel Gance went on to make a celebrated remake of the film in 1937.

À propos de Nice (1930) Review

À propos de Nice (1930) Director: Jean Vigo

Image result for à propos de nice

★★★☆☆

Jean Vigo made this short avant-garde, documentary-styled film when he was 25 years old (in English the title is “Concerning Nice”). It was his debut film – a silent montage exposing French culture in the Mediterranean tourist city of Nice. He made the film with Dzigo Vertov’s brother, Boris Kaufman, and the influence of Soviet montage is apparent throughout the production.

Although it is a short film, running just over 20 minutes, “Concerning Nice” was heavily censored before release and contains no central plot. Vigo’s goal was to expose the dark underside of prosperity in the city. Several scenes are memorable in the film, including the famous scene in which a woman is shown wearing various expensive outfits, and finally, after many being shown in many different outfits, she is shown sitting simply naked for spectators. Throughout the film, fast-paced cuts are made between ancient statues and architecture before quickly cutting to scenes of rampant commercialism, or scenes of girls dancing and flowers being trampled. The critique of modern commercialism is apparent. He portrays the malaise of the upper class, and the struggles of the working class. Boredom at casinos and high art are contrasted with scenes of factories and the working poor.

Image result for à propos de nice

The money to create the film was freely given by Vigo’s father-in-law. Vigo used the money to buy a new camera and launch this project. Vigo’s debut film is an odd, montage with scattered, avant-garde clips intended to be a critique of bourgeois culture in France. It is a challenging film, though it is not particularly enjoyable in my view.

Who was Jean Vigo? Vigo was a posthumously influential French filmmaker. He was born to a French anarchist family and spent much of his early childhood on the run. His father was captured and murdered in prison in 1917. Vigo was then sent away to boarding school under an assumed name. He is primarily known for two films: Zero for Conduct (1933) and L’Atalante (1934). Tragically, Vigo died in 1934 of Tuberculosis at age 29, a disease he initially caught eight years earlier. He lived a poor and struggling life, never achieving financial success during his lifetime.