Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy of Art, London

Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy of Art, London. Review by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, VisitMuseums.com The Royal Academy is hosting one of the first major exhibitions in England of the renowned nineteenth century French artist Edouard Manet. Born in 1832, from affluent parents, Manet devoted his artistic career to portraiture and genre paintings and focused his work on a direct observation of the external world; an ideal that was expounded by Realism. We see an artist intent on recreating what he saw in his world and his personal social setting so that both his family and friends take on a profoundly important role as does the relationship between artist and sitter.

One of Manet’s most constant preoccupations was to envelop his characters with the atmosphere of the world in which they and he belonged. Moreover most of his portraits were for the private world in which he circled and he did not need commissions.The portrait of his step son, Leon Leenhoff - who posed in seventeen of Manet’s portraits - is one of the first paintings you come across in the exhibition. Entitled ‘Boy blowing bubbles’ it is a rather endearing but slightly severe portrait of a young boy blowing bubbles in which it is hard to determine the age of the sitter. Blowing bubbles was a common factor previous artists used to depict the transcience of human life but here it is perhaps the sombre setting and delicate rendering of his facial features that is of interest. Manet’s warm portrait of his wife, “Mme Manet at the Piano” is a delightful rendering of his attractive and distinguished looking wife - the renowned piano player and socialite Susan Leenhoff . The sense of intimacy in the setting and between the sitter and the artist can be felt as is the opulence of the room; seen in the subtle reflection of the lustrous chandelier in the canvas. We are given a glimpse of the artist himself in the many photos that are on display throughout the exhibition and Manet comes across strongly as an urbane man, a socialite, smartly dressed and lively who greatly enjoys the company of people but who also wanted to prove himself and be accepted by the salons and art critics.

During his career Manet developed a roughly painted style with photographic lighting, which was often not embraced by his critics. In his self portrait we see this sketchy style and roughly blocked in details like his hands and cuffs. Interestingly here he does not portray himself as a serious artist engaged in painting but as a witty and seductive man about town. One gets the feeling in the first room of the exhibition that the family portraits are a little crammed together. Subsequently there is a whole room devoted to the painting, ‘Music in the Tuileries'. Here we see a painting solely inspired by city life and Manet’s life long interest in leisure. Inspired by the artists Hals and Velasquez the painting depicts in great detail Manet’s friends, artists, family and himself in the garden as they gather round to listen to a concert. It is probably the most ambitious group painting he painted yet it was savagely attacked by critics of the day for its decline in perspective and for the characters that have their back to us.

Manet’s close relationship to his artist and friend Berthe Morisot culminated in what I think is one of his best portraits in the exhibition. Even though this is one of the smaller paintings on show it is immensely beautiful and captures her personality and soul. Morisot’s gaze is level and direct as she stares out to us and we can see the minute detail of her black dress and the violets that she clasps to her chest. Manet had a lifelong preference for using black in his paintings, influenced by Velasquez, and became masterful at painting the gradations of black. Compared to the Morisot portrait I found some of the other portraits in the exhibition, such as the one of Emile Zola and Rouviere, a little lifeless and stiff. Manet sometimes seems to lose the personality of the sitter. Yet we see in his unusual painting, ‘In the Garden’, finished in 1870 a beautiful painting of a couple and their baby relaxing in the garden. It depicts the artist Giuseppe de Nittis enjoying domestic life with his wife and child in their villa garden to the west of Paris. The reflection of light is masterful as are the soft colours he uses to paint the garden. It is a serene picture and depicts yet again the experience of life as Manet sees it. During his lifetime he was never interested in mythology, allegory or historical subjects purposefully sticking to the everyday and to modern life. His paintings of the professional model Victorine Meurent, particularly the one on display in the last room of the exhibition give her a strong personality and sexual charge and he would subsequently use her in his genre paintings such as the famous painting “Le dejeuner sur l’herbehttp://www.visitmuseums.com/work-of-art/le-dejeuner-sur-lherbe-123”.

Manet had many champions during his career; Zola supported him in the press as did the famous poet Charles Baudelaire who continually challenged him to depict life as it was. Seen as an ‘early modern’ painter Manet’s work was influenced by and simultaneously anticipated the Impressionist style. The Royal Academy presents to us some 50 paintings some of which I must admit I found to be a little lifeless and unfinished. Yet as I walked through the rooms there are many paintings, such as the one of Berthe Morisot or his wife, that leapt out to me. Beware of the long queues to get in.

By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, VisitMuseums.com

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