Manet: Portraying Life and modernity at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Ben Miller | 24 January 2013

Exhibition review: Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26 – April 14 2013

An image of an oil painting of a woman in a black hat and dress staring out from the canvas
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872). Oil on canvas© RMN (Musee d'Orsay) / Herve Lewandowski
Female painters in white dresses stare back rather than concentrate on canvasses which, somewhat curiously, have been framed before their completion. Faces which at first seem finished seem to disintegrate and the hands of sitters aren’t always certain. It is in this knot of ambiguities that Édouard Manet’s power lies.

In The Railway we cannot deduce whether we are regarding a two or three-dimensional work, nor precisely where the puffs of brilliant white smoke may be coming from.

An image of an oil painting of a 19th century woman standing in a bar in grey clothes
Street Singer (circa 1862). Oil on canvas© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Sarah Choate Sears in memory of her husband, Joshua Montgomery Sears. Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
This elusive mystique – perhaps characteristically for a man who influenced the impressionists but exhibited alone – is a touchstone for the viewer’s imaginings.

The work is indebted to Goya, and the Hispanic paintings including a street player with a guitar swept in grey, are derived from the style of Velázquez.

But Manet’s social scene, from which he attempted to portray the rapidly changing world, is a study of creative catalysts.

His subjects in late 19th century Paris encompassed writer Emile Zola at the start of his career and, as in Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), an impressive cast of musicians, artists, writers and thinkers. One of them, the poet Charles Baudelaire, was a key ally of Manet in his search for the nature of modern art and modernity at the start of the 1860s.

The painting, with its bustling string of figures sitting in the famous Parisian gardens, is given an entire room to itself. 

Some of the faces are of the extremely wealthy; others are from the bourgeoisie lining Manet’s cultural clique, the artist himself standing on one side of the group.

It reflects modernity as the height of fashion, with music providing sensation and raising the spirits. The accompanying band, reputed to have played twice a week within the gardens, is nowhere to be seen, but like many of Manet's paintings the intrigue sometimes lies in what may be beyond the fray of each scene.

In a section showing many of his fellow artists – some of whom were apparently unimpressed at being asked to resit dozens of times before each painting was completed – Manet worked directly onto the canvas, shaping each composition with an arresting immediacy.

But in a show of around 60 paintings, Manet’s perfectly calculated sense of uncertainty permeates every scene.

  • Tickets £6-£17. Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @RoyalAcademy.

  • Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Sponored by BNY Mellon, Partner of the Royal Academy of Arts.

More pictures:

An image of an oil painting of a young man drinking from a soup spoon in the 19th century
Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867). Oil on canvas© Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
An image of a 19th century oil painting of a woman in a grey dress sitting near plants
Mme Manet in the Conservatory (1879). Oil on canvas© The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo Photo Borre Hostland
An image of a 19th century oil painting of a large group of people in a park
Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862). Oil on canvas© The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
An image of an oil painting of a young woman and a little girl standing by railway gates
The Railway (1873). Oil on canvas© National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer, 1956.10.1 Photo courtesyNational Gallery of Art, Washington
An image of an oil painting of a 19th century gent in a black coat and hat with a cane
Portrait of M. Antonin Proust (1880). Oil on canvas© Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey Photo Photography Incorporated, Toledo
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