Artist biography - Edouard Manet
Above: Portrait of Manet by H.
Manet establishes himself as a painter of modern
life - "Music in the Tuileries Gardens" (above).
Two scandalous early Manet masterpieces:
“Déjeuner sur l'herbe” or "The Luncheon on the
Grass" (above) and "Olympia" (below).
Manet influenced the Impressionists but by the
1870s, the Impressionists had clearly influenced
Manet's style. Above: "The Banks of the Seine at
Argenteuil." Below: "The Monet Family in their
Garden at Argenteuil."
Manet continued to produce masterpieces eve after
changing his style. Above: "The Railway"
Below: "The Bar at the Folies-Bergere."
Two paintings in which Manet's wife, Susan
Leenhoff was the model: "The Reading" (above)
and "Woman With A Cat" (below).
Above and below: Two portraits of Manet's
friend the artist Berthe Morisot.
Above: "The Corner of the Café Concert."
Edouard Manet never exhibited with the Impressionists and he
declined to call himself an Impressionist. However, the
Impressionists considered him a hero and without Manet, it is
unlikely that Impressionism would have ever succeeded. In return,
the Impressionists influenced Manet's work, allowing it to reach
even greater heights.
Manet was born in 1832. His family was affluent and well-
connected. His father was a judge and his mother was the god-
daughter of the Swedish king Charles XIV John. (The king, formerly
called Jean Bernadotte, was born a Frenchman and had achieved
fame as a Marshall of the Empire under Napoleon I. This led to his
being asked to assume the Swedish throne).
The profession of law was something of a tradition in the Manet
family and Manet's father hoped his son would also enter the law.
His maternal uncle, however, encouraged young Edouard's interest in
art, taking him to see the collections in the Paris museums and
When the boy reached his late teens, his father still hoped that
Edouard would pursue a respectable profession suitable for
someone of his class. If it was not to be the law, then a career in the
navy would be an acceptable compromise. However, Edouard was
too old to enter the naval academy unless he had experience at sea.
Therefore, he signed on to a training ship and made a voyage to Rio
de Janeiro in 1848 But a naval career was not to be as Edouard
twice failed the entrance examination for the navy.
With his family's acquiescence, Manet now began to study art.
He enrolled in the studio of Charles Couture. However, Manet did
not care for Couture's academic approach to art and Couture did not
care for Manet's avant garde style. Much more satisfactory to Manet
was the time that he spent in the Academie Suisse, a free studio,
where Manet could paint as he wished. Perhaps the most
educational part of his studies, however, was when he went to the
Louvre to copy the works of the Old Masters. He was particularly
influenced by the works of the Spanish artists Velázquez and Goya.
In 1856, Manet felt ready to open his own studio in Paris. It
was a time of great change. Emperor Napoleon III and Baron
Haussmann were in the process of replacing the old medieval city
with a modern yet beautiful city. Meanwhile, the industrial
revolution was producing both prosperity and more leisure time for
the growing middle class. Writers and intellectuals thrived in this
climate. Manet, heeding the call of his friend the writer Charles
Baudelaire, set out to be an artist who recorded this modern life.
But before Manet lay a formidable obstacle. If an artist wanted
to be successful in the art world at that time, he or she had to show
his work at the Paris Salon – the annual official government art
exhibition. The best works shown at the Salon were purchased by
the government. More importantly, exhibiting at the Salon was seen
as a stamp of approval. If an artist's work was shown at the Salon,
collectors and other purchasers knew that it must be good.
Not just anyone could exhibit at the Salon. A jury not only
decided what pieces could be shown but how they were hung and
which works would receive prizes. The jury was made up of
academicians from the Academie des Beaux Arts (the “Academy”),
the official art school, and they were devoted to the principles taught
at the Academy.
The juries hated Manet's work for two reasons. First, Manet
painted scenes of real people involved in modern life. The
Academy believed that there was a hierarchy to art with history
painting at the top. By this they meant, scenes from the Bible or
pictures inspired by Greek and Roman mythology or a glorified
image of a great battle. Scenes of modern life were impossibly
Second, Manet's technique was all wrong. In a good painting,
there should be no signs of brush work, everything should be smooth
and varnished. Manet's brush strokes were clearly visible, the
colors were wrong and the images were cropped like a photograph.
Despite this hostility, two of Manet's works were shown in the
Salon of 1861. However, in 1863, the jury rejected a major work by
Manet “Déjeuner sur l'herbe” - a scene in which a nude woman and a
partially-dressed woman are having a picnic with two fully-dressed
The jury rejected so many submissions that year that complaints
were made to the Emperor. Napoleon III decided that he would like
to see the rejected works and a Salon of the Rejects (Salon des
Refuses) was organized. “Déjeuner sur l'herbe” was one of the
works shown at that exhibition and it caused a scandal that rocked
Paris. Most critics and the public condemned the work but a few
writers including Emile Zola, were impressed.
Manet was not intimidated by the scandal. For the 1865 Salon,
he contributed a painting of a female nude. The jury accepted it but
“Olympia” caused an even greater scandal than before. It was
clearly the painting of a modern woman who was most likely a
courtesan not an inspiring image of a Greek goddess. Furthermore,
the pale colors and unfinished look of the painting irritated
academicians. However, once again, Manet had a small group of
Upon learning that an academic jury was going to exclude his
works from the Universale Exposition of 1867, Manet used an
inheritance from his father to erect a pavilion across from one of the
entrances to the Exposition. Inside, Manet exhibited 50 of his
paintings. Once again, there was a split of opinion with most critics
hostile but also a growing number of supporters.
Manet was by now a hero to the young avant garde artists of
Paris. In the evenings, he was the center of a group including Claude
Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Frederic Bazille and
Camille Pissarro that met at the Cafe Guerbois to socialize and talk
about art. There was a suggestion that they should hold their own
independent exhibition but nothing came of it.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 intervened. Manet elected to
stay in Paris and served as an artilleryman in the National Guard
during the Siege of Paris.
Following the war, the juries at the Salon became even more
restrictive. Anything avant garde was viewed as being of the same
ilk as the unpopular Paris Commune that had immediately followed
the war. Consequently, there were more rejections for Manet and his
friends from the Cafe Guerbois.
Championed by Pissarro and Degas, the idea of an independent
group exhibition resurfaced. By 1874, most of the group, including
Manet's friend Berthe Morisot, had decided to go ahead with the
project. They invited Manet to participate but he told Degas “I
prefer to enter the Salon by the front door.”
As a result, Manet did not participate in that exhibition or any
of the seven subsequent Impressionist exhibitions. This did not
isolate him from the criticism that was hurled against the
Impressionists in the press as he was seen as their leader even if he
did not participate in the exhibitions.
Instead, he continued to submit works to the Salon. At first, he
found some success. Officialdom, critics and the public became
reconciled to his style. “Le Bon Bock” shown at the Salon in 1873
received unanimous praise. But then Manet's style changed.
Urged to do so by Morisot, he tried plein air painting. His
palette became lighter and the colors brighter. He went on painting
expeditions with Monet and Renoir. In short, he began to
incorporate the Impressionist style into his work. Inasmuch as the
Impressionists were condemned by the art establishment, Manet
again felt the sting of public criticism and Salon rejections.
By the 1880s, the wind had shifted again. His submission to the
1881 Salon was not only accepted but won a medal. In 1882, the
French government awarded Manet the star of Chevalier of the
Legion of Honor.
Manet, however, was a very sick man. Syphilis and rheumatism
made it difficult for him to move. However, Manet had one last
great work in him. “The Bar at the Folies Bergere” was the last in
the line of Manet's paintings of Parisian nightlife. It was accepted
and shown at the 1882 Salon.
In the Spring of 1883, gangrene appeared in Manet's left foot. It
was agreed amputation was necessary. However, the operation was
too late to stop the spread. Manet died on April 30, 1883.
We often think of the time when Manet lived as being very
constrained. In England, Queen Victoria was on the throne setting an
example of prudish morality for the world. However, in Paris at this
time, approximately one third of the births were out of wedlock.
Although Manet was the center of a circle of Bohemian artists
and forward-thinking intellectuals, his appearance was unlike the
popular image of the struggling artist. He took great pride in his
dress, wearing fashionable outfits including a top hat, long coat,
yellow gloves and bright pantaloons.
Manet loved the Parisian nightlife. In addition to the Cafe
Guerbois, he was often seen in fashionable restaurants and cafes. He
went to the opera and the theater. He observed what was happening
on the new boulevards of Paris.
Following his father's death, Edouard married Susan Leenhoff.
She had entered Manet's world more than 10 years before when she
was hired by Manet's father to give piano lessons to his boys. It is
also likely that she became Manet's father's mistress. Consequently,
it is unclear whether her son born in 1852 was Manet's son or his
father's son. In any case, Leon, who was presented as Susan's
brother, was the subject of numerous works by Manet as was his
Manet painted many women either in portraits or as models in
figure paintings. In addition to being famous Manet had charm and
good looks. As a result, well-known actresses and celebrities of the
day wanted him to do their pictures.
One of his favorite models was Victorine Meurand who
appears in “Dejuner sur L'Herbe” as well as “Olympia.” She later
became an accomplished artist. Along the same lines, Manet painted
a portrait of his only formal pupil, Eva Gonzales, who also became
Manet's relationship with Berthe Morisot remains shrouded in
mystery. They met in 1860 when both were copying paintings at the
Louvre. They were of similar backgrounds and both were
extraordinary artists. A close bond was formed that continued until
Manet's death. She married Manet's younger brother Eugene but it
has been speculated that this may have been a marriage of
convenience. In any case, the way Manet depicted her in the
numerous paintings and drawings that he did of her, indicate that she
was someone special.
Manet is a major figure in the history of art. By breaking with
the conservative academic tradition that dominated the art world, he
opened the door to different approached to art thus giving artists
greater freedom. If he had not endured the criticism that was hurled
against him not only would there have been no Impressionism but
there would not have been the various art movements of the 20th
Leaving aside his historical importance, Manet can be admired
for several reasons. He has sometimes been referred to as a Realist
but he was not a photo-realist. Indeed, his works are less visually
realistic than the academic paintings he shunned. He distilled
images to their essence, indicating the essential lines and shapes
with an economy of brush-work.
He also made clever use of geometric shapes. For example, in
“Corner of a Café Concert” the main figure is framed by a series of
rectangles These represent the area around the café stage but they
also form a geometric design foreshadowing the modern art of the
Manet's choice of colors in his earlier work is somewhat
lackluster. However, once he adopted the Impressionist palette, his
choice of colors was on a par with Monet and Renoir.