Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 18, 2013
MaryAnne Stevens, Carol M. Armstrong, Colin B. Bailey, Stéphane Guégan, Leah Lehmbeck, and Lawrence W. Nichols Manet: Portraying Life Exh. cat. London: Royal Academy Publications, 2012. 224 pp.; 150 ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781905711741)
Exhibition schedule: Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, October 7, 2012–January 1, 2013; Royal Academy, London, January 26–April 14, 2013
Édouard Manet. Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880). Oil on canvas. 129.5 × 95.9 cm. Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1925.108. Photo © Photography Incorporated, Toledo.

A major exhibition of Édouard Manet’s portraits was already a gleam in Lawrence Nichols’s eye from the time in 1992 when he joined the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). What sparked the idea was the handsome portrait of Manet’s close friend, Antonin Proust (1880), donated to the museum in 1925, having passed through just one French collection after that of the sitter. The TMA’s portrait project was developed into a collaboration with the Royal Academy in London, where the active participation of MaryAnne Stevens gave it the particular character revealed in the catalogue and essentially in the larger, London version of the exhibition, presented in her introduction to the Gallery Guide as “the first to focus on [Manet]’s practice as a portrait painter.”

As hinted at in the title, the theme of portraiture was enlarged to encompass Manet’s brand of genre painting, one that “portrayed” recognizable models, whether professionals or of the friends-and-family variety, in modern life situations and settings. Indeed, the project might have taken as its motto a pithy and perceptive statement by Léon Rosenthal: “Delighting in character and individuality, Manet is known to have been reluctant to employ professional models. One could say, without exaggeration, that he painted nothing but portraits.” Rosenthal followed this with a long list of “genre” figure studies and their models or sitters, albeit limited to those Manet translated as prints (Léon Rosenthal, Manet. Aquafortiste et Lithographe, Paris: Le Goupy, 1925, 69–70; my translation). Rosenthal also added that Manet was not primarily aiming at a likeness in such works, and that one could not really place them in the same category as the portraits of his family and the artists and poets who were his friends.

In the exhibitions in Toledo and London, and in the catalogue that accompanied them, a substantial and coherent group of relevant paintings in the expanded field of portraiture and figures portrayed could have provided a very revealing account of the development of Manet’s art, but only, in this reviewer’s opinion, if it had been presented in an essentially chronological hang. The decision to divide this double strand of Manet’s artistic production (what the catalogue calls the “straight portrait” and “portrait-genre”) into five inevitably interconnected, partly interchangeable and overlapping themes or chapters—“The Artist and his Family,” “Artists,” “Men of Letters and Figures of the Stage,” “The Status Portrait,” and “Models” (in each of which the works presented ranged from the 1860s to the 1880s)—led in the right circumstances to an incitement to concentrate on individual paintings: The Luncheon (1868), on view in London only, held visitors intrigued and spellbound in the first room, where it commanded the center of a wall, flanked by two other, quiet and “finished” 1860s works, Mme Manet at the Piano (1868) and Boy Blowing Bubbles (ca. 1867). In the worst cases, it made for incoherence, and it certainly compounded the considerable confusion between finished, essentially Salon works (whether accepted or rejected) and Manet’s many unfinished canvases, not to mention those posthumously reworked, which some viewers and critics of the London show judged irrelevant or positively harmful to the artist’s reputation. For example, in the fifth room, Manet’s unforgettably grand and moving Salon painting of Gilbert Marcellin Desboutin as The Artist (1875), a rare visitor from faraway São Paulo, was shoehorned into a corner and “paired” with the even larger study of Carolus-Duran (1876), a fascinating but completely unresolved, abandoned ébauche, with The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil (1874), discordant in scale and tonality, playing piggy in the middle, while the central sightline from the room’s entrance homed in on the quite incongruous Tragic Actor (1865), and the unfinished sketch portrait Émilie Ambre as Carmen (1880) flashed its theatrical spotlighting on another wall.

It seems reasonable to expect that a major Manet show will include a representative selection of substantial works, especially if a particular genre is being explored, and that they will be arranged in such a way as to offer a view that is intelligible both to scholars and connoisseurs, who may not necessarily be specialists in the particular field, and to the general public, who will normally have little idea of what to expect, and certainly not from an artist as individual and as varied as Manet. Furthermore—one might say primarily—an exhibition of the “blockbuster” variety owes its viewers an enthralling, intellectually and visually “life-enhancing” experience, with works displayed to best advantage. Hence the harking back, by those still here to tell the tale, to such truly unforgettable exhibitions as the Manet retrospective of 1983 at the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While acknowledging that things are generally more difficult today, fate was certainly unhelpful to this show at this particular time, given the exhibitions in the too-recent past (Manet et le Paris moderne at Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in 2010, followed in 2011 by the Musée d’Orsay’s Manet, inventeur du moderne); 2012–13’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Musée d’Orsay, Metropolitan Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago; and this year’s Manet: Ritorno a Venezia, curated by Stéphane Guégan at the Palazzo Ducale. All these rival shows complicated the always difficult loan situation with an artist whose early death and uniquely varied oeuvre offer little room for alternative choices. The catalogue itself bears the scars of last-minute decisions, and it would be useful, for those trying to fit the catalogue to the reviews, or to their memory of one or other showing of the exhibition, to account for works that never made it to either venue, or were present in one or the other, but not always as indicated in the catalogue.

Two outstanding Salon paintings seen in Toledo, the magnificent étude of Berthe Morisot as Repose (1870) and the dazzling genre scene Chez le père Lathuile (1879), did not make the journey to London, while In the Conservatory (1877–79), scheduled for London only, did not materialize from Berlin. But even if it had, the arrangement by “chapters” would have prevented this masterpiece “status portrait,” presented at the Salon of 1879, from being seen together with the work from which it was derived: the first room’s “family” portrait of Suzanne Manet on the same green bench (dated 1876, but for which the old, erroneous dating of 1879 persisted in the catalogue, despite clarification in the 2010 Tokyo catalogue [Juliet Wilson-Bareau, “Édouard Manet dans ses ateliers,” in Manet et le Paris moderne, exh. cat., Tokyo: Musée Mitsubishi Ichigokan, 304–12]).

In Toledo, the boldly colored “rooms” within the open-plan exhibition space—deep blue, mustard yellow, or a rich, warm red—complemented Manet’s preference for strong, clean colors and his wonderful gamut of blacks. Views through “doors” or “windows” into other areas, and carefully contrived glimpses of distant works, brought Repose into dramatic confrontation with the viewer from a first, deeply shadowed entrance room through a large “window” onto the rich red walls of the “Artists” section. But this was a promise of things to come. From the darkness of the entrance lair, which included Carolus-Duran’s intense and moving portrait of Manet (1876), not seen in London, the flâneur visitor emerged into the sunny, mustard yellow world of “The Artist and his Family.”

Here viewers encountered the curiously enchanting, early allegory titled Fishing (ca. 1862–63), carefully and characteristically signed éd. Manet on a raft at the water’s edge but left undated (pace the catalogue entry), in which references to Peter Paul Rubens and Annibale Carracci are seamlessly blended with current works in progress and the landscape of the Manet family’s property to the north of Paris. Nearby was the perfectly captured and exquisitely structured vision of Mme Manet at the Piano (1868) and the study of Léon, richly painted and extensively reworked as a Boy Blowing Bubbles, surely earlier than scholars think, and a candidate for technical investigation. Alongside these satisfyingly finished works was the somewhat perplexing inclusion of an extensively scraped down, partially unpainted fragment of an abandoned canvas showing Léon on a Velocipede (ca. 1871), from which a greyhound or whippet, running alongside, was cut away after the artist’s death. In the splendid 1869 Salon painting The Luncheon, the dog appears as an underlying element in the x-radiograph, and both works originated, like The Balcony (1868–69) and its initial ébauche (1868), in a family holiday in Boulogne.

The Toledo show continued gaily, airily, and—save for the dark, evocative room in which all the pastels were grouped—in a luminous atmosphere that was sympathetic to study and enjoyment of the works. The effect and atmosphere created in the immense suite of grand rooms in the Royal Academy in London was entirely different. Here, on uniformly deep gray walls, individual works were spot lit with a relatively low-level, gold-hued light that rendered them far less legible, dulling the brilliance of Manet’s cool, studio daylight that allows his clean, clear colors to sing and even clash, as they did for viewers of his Music in the Tuileries (1862), chez Martinet in 1863. One striking example: the signature, noted with delight in Toledo as cleverly “carved” into the stone parapet of Boy Blowing Bubbles, and characteristic of the artist’s playfully inventive signatures in his early work, was invisible in London (as in most reproductions of the work). On the other hand, this warm lighting served paintings in darker, earth colors very well; rarely have the unforgettable gaze, the extraordinary dog, and brushy background of Manet’s monumental Artist been so fully and directly experienced, or the dark but for once clearly defined depths of Berthe Morisot in Mourning (1874), a work that transfixed younger visitors to the Royal Academy, and especially artists, many of whom remained unmoved and uninterested by the iconic Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872), less sympathetically displayed nearby, but remembered by this writer as a confrontation of breathtaking beauty and intensity in the Musée d’Orsay’s temporary display before completion of the new and permanent installation. Lighting can be a crucial key to perception of a work of art.

The very large room of “status portraits” at the Royal Academy proved the most contentious, with its lineup of mainly Salon or Salon-project males on the left, and on the right, a row of unfinished and, with one exception, posthumously reworked canvases. The latter provided the most criticized aspect of the exhibition, and one that Toledo largely escaped, although it included, as London did not, the splendid but unfinished ébauche (posthumously signed and reworked) Baudelaire’s Mistress (Lady with a Fan) (1862). While the Portrait of Mme Brunet (ca. 1860–63) appeared in Toledo only, newly cleaned and resplendent as an early female “status portrait,” a fascinating foil to it was provided by one of the best preserved (still unlined) and most beautiful of Manet’s unfinished and unsigned late studies, La Promenade (ca. 1880–81), a “portrait” for which Manet posed Mme Gamby in his studio in front of a canvas painted at Bellevue during June–October 1880. In London, this work was accompanied by three large, unfinished, and posthumously reworked canvases that included the Portrait of M. Arnaud (ca. 1873–75) and The Amazon (ca. 1875), with their invented or retouched backgrounds and “post-Lochard” signatures. And yet some of the best works in the show, although unfinished, were perfectly resolved as sketches: the exquisite portrait-study of Berthe Morisot (ca. 1868–71), and the unretouched Isabelle Lemonnier (ca. 1879), as well as the portrait of Gamby. The accumulation of unfinished studio sketches was the legacy of Théodore Duret whom Manet had charged in his will with the destruction of those his friend considered unfit for preservation, yet all were retained, down to the last scraped or barely outlined canvas, as a means of support for his widow, and they will continue to present problems until all have been subjected to close comparison with Fernand Lochard’s photographs of the works in Manet’s studio in 1883, and to detailed technical examination.

At the Royal Academy, the final, always impossibly crowded room was devoted to Manet’s favorite model, Victorine Meurent, although she was symbolized, rather than actually painted by Manet, in the Courtauld’s version of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (date and authorship unconfirmed for this writer). In both venues, Meurent brought the shows to an end with her enigmatic presence in the tranquil, spellbinding Railway (1873), a newborn puppy on her lap, and with the young girl’s bare arm and hand leading the viewers’ eyes toward the door and window of Manet’s new studio on the rue de Saint-Pétersbourg at the start of his post-war, 1870s artistic life in one of the most dramatic and inspiring locations in Haussmann’s Paris.

Toledo’s show, smaller and tighter, installed with a light touch, and with a higher proportion of masterpieces, was coherent and a real success in spite of the leaps in chronology and in degrees of finish within each room. In London, the relative darkness of the succession of grand but often uncomfortably overcrowded galleries emphasized the disparate and often less than ideal hang, and was let down by both known and unplanned gaps. Indeed, the undoubtedly urgent, last-ditch battle for loans may explain inadequacies and errors in the catalogue that served for both shows. Its six essays engage interestingly with various aspects of Manet’s portraits. Once the scene is set, and “portraits” and “portrayal” analyzed (Stevens), the texts explore: Manet’s intriguing relationship with Théophile Gautier whose Romantic understanding of Realism welcomed but then failed to comprehend Manet’s chosen path (Guégan); his ambiguous responses to the photography of Nadar and of André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (Carol M. Armstrong); the emphasis on beautiful women in his later years (Leah Lehmbeck); his differences and affinities with Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Colin B. Bailey); and his admiration for Frans Hals (Nichols). This multifaceted approach to Manet’s portraiture still leaves some fundamental issues unaddressed. In the “straight portraits” of his friends, Manet—sharply observant but amiably flexible—is seen giving his sitters the images they themselves could expect and enjoy; the expansively elegant Astruc (1866), the self-consciously authorial Zola (1868), and uptight little Duret (1968) are prime examples, as is Antonin Proust, the impeccably fashionable portrait of Manet’s childhood friend, a politician, soon to become Minister of Fine Arts. In the late 1870s, already fragile and suffering, Manet told Proust that he saw him as the only possible model for a picture he had always longed to paint, a “Christ on the cross” that became an obsession and led him, while working on the portrait, to paint Proust “as Christ sporting a hat and frock coat with a rose in the buttonhole. In other words as Christ on his way to see Mary Magdalen” (Antonin Proust, Édouard Manet: souvenirs (1897), Paris: L‘Échoppe, 1996, 64; my translation).

How can viewers ever know what thoughts and feelings lie behind Manet’s portraits and portrayals? What desires, what passion for the beauty of life, and awareness of its fragility, what personal human dramas lie within the images of his parents, his mistress made wife, the young Léon of whom, grown dull and heavy as a photograph attests (cat. fig. 46), no mature portraits are known? Or later, when he captures the mood of his soul mate Stéphane Mallarmé, the dishevelled grandeur of the artist Desboutin, and the swift movement or concentrated stillness, the subtly fleeting expressions, of so many women in all of whom he seeks the spark of life and attempts to capture his own creativity on the wing? This is about more than “fashion” and “modernity”; this is an expression of profound passion for the living world in all its complex reality and spiritual intensity. For an artist who longed to be understood and wanted to be seen “whole,” this problematic exhibition was welcome for the memorable works it succeeded in offering, in Toledo and in London, and for its reminder that we are still far from grasping and fully understanding Manet’s art.

Juliet Wilson-Bareau
independent scholar

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