Manet and Modern Beauty

This exhibition which opens at the Art Institute of Chicago on May 26 is the first to focus on the final years of Edouard Manet’s career, when, suffering from ill health and no longer able to be the man-about-Paris, he underwent something of an artistic transformation.

“In the revolutionary formation of modern painting, he was, by general agreement, first among equals — George Washington at the easel.” Thus wrote New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl of Edouard Manet while discussing a survey of the artist’s still lifes nearly two decades ago. And while shows exploring lesser-known aspects of his oeuvre may have enlarged the public’s perception of Manet over the years, he nonetheless remains in that rarefied “fathers of modernism” category, his humanity largely obscured by his iconic status.

Manet and Modern Beauty, which opens at the Art Institute of Chicago this month and then moves on to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in the fall, reminds viewers that the artist was flesh and blood. It is the first exhibition to focus on the final years of his career, when, suffering from ill health and no longer able to be the man-about-Paris, he underwent something of an artistic transformation.

Born into an eminent family in 1832, Manet only succeeded in pursuing his true calling after twice failing the entrance exam to the naval academy, dashing his father’s hopes that he might find a more suitable occupation. His apprenticeship included studying for six years under the academic painter Thomas Couture and steeping himself in the Old Masters both at the Louvre and abroad. However much of a trailblazer he was to become, he would never leave his classical training behind.


Edouard Manet, Jeanne (Spring), 1881. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Indeed, some people might be surprised to learn that in spite of the innovations for which he is credited — the flatness of his forms, for example — he never actively sought to be an artistic rebel. As Schjeldahl explains, “his work caused public scandals, which tormented him. He wanted to please.” He submitted paintings to the official Salon throughout his career, stirring up the establishment with works such as Olympia, his brazenly unidealized take on the odalisque theme, and racking up outright rejections with others, most notably The Luncheon on the Grass. Although closely associated with the Impressionists, he never took part in their exhibitions.

By the late 1870s, when Manet and Modern Beauty begins, the artist was suffering significantly from the effects of syphilis. He had difficulty walking — one of his legs would later be amputated — and began taking rest cures outside of Paris. For whatever reasons — his exile from the city, an increasing awareness of his mortality, the physical limitations imposed by his illness — he began to embrace beauty for beauty’s sake, turning out portraits of fashionable women, garden scenes, and still lifes (often depicting bouquets brought by visitors), as well as more spontaneous watercolors and pastels.

Among the highlights of the 90 works displayed is Jeanne (Spring), a portrait of the aspiring actress Jeanne Demarsy presented at the 1882 Salon, just a year before the artist died at age 51. “In his entire 30-year career in the Salon, which as many people know, was extremely contentious and controversial, this was one of the only pictures that really disarmed the critics and was a resounding success,” explains Scott Allan, Associate Curator of Paintings at the Getty Museum and one of the co-curators of the show, in a 2017 episode of the Art + Ideas podcast. “So in some ways, it’s a crowning achievement of Manet’s career.”


Edouard Manet, In the Conservatory, circa 1877–79. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

While the composition harks back to early Italian Renaissance portraiture, the “modern beauty” referenced in the exhibition title would have been evident to 19th-century viewers. In his influential 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire emphasizes the importance of depicting contemporary fashion, whose ephemeral nature makes it a true a hallmark of the here and now.

Accordingly, Manet carefully curated his subject’s stylish outfit, shopping for the pieces himself. A companion painting titled Autumn, which also appears in the show, depicts the wealthy courtesan Méry Laurent, the inspiration for Odette in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in her own clothing. Summer and Winter were never realized.

Perhaps the most poignant pieces on view are some 15 rarely seen letters illustrated with fruits, flowers, and other natural elements, fragile testimonies to the small pleasures of everyday life. One of Peter Schjeldahl’s observations about Manet’s paintings could well apply here: “Each is a lesson about dying: Don’t. Only be alive.”

Manet and Modern Beauty
From May 26 through September 8, 2019
Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago, IL

From October 8, 2019 through January 12, 2020
J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles, CA

Article published in the May 2019 issue of France-Amérique

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