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:

Image result for titian venus of urbino
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.”

“All The World’s A Stage” Considered

In Act II scene 7 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we encounter one of the more fatalistic and artful monologues in all of Shakespearean literature, Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy. Drawing on Ovid, Shakespeare uses the character, Jaques, to compare the totality of human life to the charade of a play, and he enumerates the seven stages of a man’s life -it is sometimes called the ‘Seven Stages of Man’ monologue. However, unlike Ovid there is something nihilistic about Jacques’s speech -perhaps an idea he gets from the clownish “philosopher” Touchstone.

To set the scene, the tyrants have overtaken the good and noble men. Orlando, a willing and capable man with natural talents (“Fortune”) is denied his due inheritance and rightful place by his conniving and jealous older brother, Oliver. According to their family servant, Adam (thought to have been played by Shakespeare), Oliver plans to kill his younger brother Orlando, so Adam and Orlando take flight into the Forest of Arden. Meanwhile, Duke Senior has been overthrown by his usurping brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled with a band of loyal noblemen into the Forest of Arden to live like Robin Hood and his merry men in the wild, pastoral, wilderness. One of these men is Jacques who has been led to question the nature of things and the meaning of life by a fool -a philosopher who laments the passing of time. According to Jacques, all of life becomes a tragedy when considering the passing of time as nothing more than another step closer to death. Are we growing or merely rotting? Is all of life vanity? Jacques, who has been influenced by the poison of the fool, is led to a life of woe -he is disillusioned and depressed. However, Duke Senior is not persuaded by his lugubriousness. Instead, when Orlando bursts onto the scene and demands food from the strangers for himself and his dying compatriot, Adam, Duke Senior provides an example of civility by inviting Orlando to the table. It is a moment of justification for civilization’s conventions to the brooding Jacques. Like the famous anecdote of Diogenes contra Alexander the Great, Jaques tells Duke Senior to stand out of his light. He plays the part of a cynic and Epicurean. He would rather live ‘like a dog’ (the meaning of the Greek word “cynic”) and entertain his mind with minstrels and distractions, preferring not to eat or care for the needs of his body.

Returning to the passage in question, Duke Senior has just tried to convince Jaques that “we are not all alone and unhappy. This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play” (136-139). With the grace and respect shown among civilized men, Duke Senior and Orlando, there are many worse and more woeful places wherein Jaques could dwell. The debate is between cynicism and convention, Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Duke Senior defends the superior of the latter, while Jaques seems tempted by the former.

We now turn to Jaques’s monologue. “All the world’s a stage” is stated by Jaques in response to the Duke claiming that there are “woeful pageants” elsewhere that are far worse than the present situation. Jaques undermines Duke Senior’s claim not by denying that there are worse situations elsewhere, but rather that all situations are mere fantasy. The word “All” is used twice to encompass both ‘all the world’ and also ‘all the men and women’. The most significant word in the opening sentence is “merely” used to describe players. The reason for this significance is that it serves to deny praise of theatre, claimed by some, and rather to highlight Jaques’s pessimism about the nature of things. In other words, a “mere” player is directly connected to the stage, and one could make the claim that all the world’s a stage is a Platonic or perhaps Nietzschean notion that high art is what forms the basis of culture, however Jaques is not a creator, in the way that Prospero is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Recall Prospero’s “our revels now are ended” monologue during the fabled marriage ceremony of his daughter, Miranda. He laments the transience of all things man-made, but perhaps not to bring them all down and see things from a jaded, disillusioned perspective. Jaques, being a young man and well-traveled like Odysseus, is quickly and easily reoriented by the fool to be a woeful Epicurean moral philosopher. His opening statement is an ontological claim -all the world is a stage. He does not use poetic similes, such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ imagery to highlight his claim to knowledge of the meagerness of the world and all the men and women who dwell in it.

“They” (or all the men and women) have their “exits and their entrances” and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Jaques has moved from denying the authenticity of the stage, to affirming the falsity of all busy men and women, to examining the life of one man in his seven ages, limiting human beings to a short and easily defined life. Under the weight of this new perspective gained from the fool, Jaques proceeds to identify the seven ages of man. For guidance through each age, we turn to the help of Robert Smirke’s painting series in 1798-1801.

seven ages 11) Infant: this stage is defined only by one sentence, of an infant “mewling and puking” in his nurse’s arms. Here Jaques employs the grotesque, rather than the charming, to describe an infant that is typically the subject of adoration.

seven ages 2

2) The “whining schoolboy” who goes to school by “creeping like a snail” in order to avoid the cane. He also has a “shining face” and a satchel. He has gone from mewling to whining.

seven ages 3

3) The “lover”: in this stage he ‘sighs like a furnace’ with a woeful ballad (we recall Orlando and Rosalind’s great sighing in fits of love) with the ballads being written for his mistresses’s “brow” (taken from Petrarch). We note that in the first three ages, there is great suffering.

seven ages 4

4) A “soldier”: here he is full of “strange oaths” and also “bearded like the pard”or a leopard. He is jealous in honor, sudden and quick (recall “swift footed Achilles”) and he is seeking a reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. The cannon destroys both life and fame, the cannon’s mouth does not echo the deeds of great man, only ends them without glory, we recall the moment Don Quixote encounters a gun for the first time.

seven ages 5

5) The “Justice”: his belly is now fair and round, like a rooster or a capon. His eyes are severe now and his beard has a “formal cut”. He is also full of “wise saws” and “modern instances”, or arguments and justifications. Note that the “Justice could be replaced with a sophistry.

seven ages 6

6) Jaques bookends the last 5 stages with “and so he plays his part” and a period. In the sixth age he is older with “pantaloons” and “spectacles”. Suddenly the world is too wide for him. His voice turning to “whistles” and “pipes” again. This age is also bookended with a period, whereas the first four were with a semicolon.

seven ages 7

7) The last scene “ends this strange and eventful  history” and is called “second childishness” that is sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans everything. Along with childishness it is called “mere oblivion”. This fatalism concludes Jaques’s monologue and, shortly following, concludes Act II.

For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd edition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.