Manet’s People

As ‘Manet: Portraying Life’ continues to draw crowds Martin Gayford talks to four Royal Academicians about why he was such a great painter

Each time he began a picture, Manet once said, he ‘felt like a man who knows his surest plan to learn to swim safely is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water’. That remark, like so much about Manet (1832-83), makes him seem very contemporary, every painting a fresh challenge. Indeed, Manet’s pictures, as Christopher Le Brun PRA remarks below, are partly about the problems of painting.

Essentially Manet painted to please himself, but that wasn’t easy. In his mind, he was in competition with all the great painters who had come before. Among those forerunners he admired, borrowed from, and competed with, were Velázquez, Hals, Goya, and, as Tom Phillips RA acutely points out, Vermeer.

Each Academician who talks about Manet here admires him as a supreme master of the brush, using it both slowly and at astonishing speed. Suitably, Sean Scully RA pays tribute to Manet the colourist, meaning not that he used a rainbow palette but that he did unprecedented and marvellous things with the shades – sometimes using just black and cream. Michael Craig-Martin RA talks about Manet the modernist, anticipating the century to come in the way he structured a picture, his enigmatic approach to narrative, and – what everybody comes back to – the marvellous things he did to paint with his brush.

Tom Phillips RA

Manet was a provocative artist. He shocked the Parisians of the 19th century. I am not surprised – he still has the capacity to shock me. A picture such as the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863-68), provoked a tremendous outcry when it was first shown, but there’s some quite traditional trickery going on in what seems to be a very modern painting. Everything looks fine at the beginning, but when you examine it, he’s playing terrific games. If the woman who is bathing in the background walked towards the people who are sitting on the grass, she would be about 10ft tall.

The composition goes back to Titian, Giorgione and an engraving by Raimondi after Raphael. It’s a double game of modernity and old-fashioned-ness that he’s playing, which is very clever. That sort of juggling – looking to the future, via the past – is what Manet enjoyed. Just as he was a dandy and a wit in life, he was in his paintings too.

Edouard Manet, 'Déjeuner sur l’herbe' (detail), c.1863-68.
Edouard Manet, ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ (detail), c.1863-68. The Samuel Courtauld Trust/The Courtauld Gallery, London.

The most startling thing in Manet’s work, especially from the point of view of a painter, is the challenge of all that black. At art school we were almost forbidden to use black. It was taboo. Matisse used to point to Déjeuner sur l’herbe and point out to people that you can use black and it doesn’t become a hole. And he would say that only really good painters could use black, because it was the most difficult of all colours.

The figure in the foreground of The Luncheon (1868) – thought to be the son of Manet, Léon Leenhoff – who is dressed in black, is right in the centre. It’s an astonishing picture all round, with its borrowings. Manet was such a freeloader from the past. But, of course, what he was borrowing from was the modern past. That figure of the woman servant almost in the background – but not quite – is like someone who came out of a Vermeer painting, then stopped over at Corot’s studio for an afternoon. The map is hanging on the wall in exactly the way it does in several pictures by Vermeer. To bring in Vermeer, at that time, was not to bring in an old artist, it was to bring in a very modern artist because he had just been rediscovered – just as Velázquez was then a newly fashionable artist to enthuse about.

It’s ingenious the way the composition works. There are two big circles: one made by the servant woman’s arm, which makes a great sweep that is continued by the bottom of the young man’s jacket; then, if you follow the line of the curved sword on the left, there’s a concentric sweep.

The Luncheon is truly modern because it presents an anecdote or an event that you can’t really place. It’s not an historical event, it’s a bourgeois moment. It is just a second in which the young man is standing, poised perhaps for a new life in the mood of The Great Gatsby or The Talented Mr Ripley. He’s an insolent figure in an arrogant painting.

The lunch table reveals Manet’s brilliance. He can paint at terrific speed, he’s like a super car that can cruise the road slowly, then speed up and go furiously. There’s a beautifully slowly-painted lemon, then other passages done at enormous speed. I like multi-speed painting and Manet had many shifts of gear.

Christopher Le Brun PRA

I’m particularly interested in the picture of Georges Clemenceau (1879-80), not so much because it shows Manet’s success as a portraitist but because it demonstrates the problems of portraiture, and it does so very vividly. The picture is full of pictorial problems and decisions. If you look across the chest, it reminds me of Ron Kitaj’s work. An isolated detail, for example the folded arms or collar area, where Manet has just rubbed in the paint and put a charcoal line, is very much like Kitaj’s paintings from the 1970s.

Then, lower down across the base of the frock coat, it’s almost like a painting lesson. It goes from warm to cool, left to right across the planes of grey. Even more interesting is the way the frock coat apparently comes in front of the balcony. So that Clemenceau is floating in this non-space which is not of the world, but belongs to painting, and specifically is all about the painter’s problems in painting. These pictures are not simple performances, this is painting as work.

Edouard Manet, 'Portrait of Georges Clemenceau', 1879-80.
Edouard Manet, ‘Portrait of Georges Clemenceau’, 1879-80. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

That’s where Manet is so disarming because you see all his difficulties. He presents himself with awkward problems all the time. In a way Georges Clemenceau is set up quite like a Goya – with the balcony as in theMajas on a Balcony (c.1808-12) – or Titian’s Portrait of a Lady (‘La Schiavona’), from 1510-12, in the National Gallery, who stands behind a low wall. Manet’s picture has all the art historical references, but also the immediacy of the subject. He always sits between those two, which are never quite resolved. Partly as a result, he comes up with these extraordinary formal inventions, which have fuelled modern art ever since.

If we look at the Portrait of Henri Rochefort (1881) we’ve moved from the sketchiness of the Clemenceau to a heavy impasto, almost starting to push towards Rembrandt. Look at the cheek with that heavy build-up of paint, with the planes flattening out again as Manet brings them to completion. You can see a process – early, middle and late – within two pictures: I don’t mean chronologically, I mean in painting time, what it’s like when you get towards the end of a picture.

Manet was haunted by his competitive instinct with the old masters. When the public come to an exhibition such as ‘Manet: Portraying Life’ they have the word ‘master’ in their minds, but I believe he was troubled by his relationship with the masters and for that reason many of these paintings were rather agonising for him. He was competing with Velázquez as well, and in the full-length Portrait of M. Brun (1879) perhaps Delacroix too.

The question of finish is crucial with Manet. You only have to look around this room to see how the question of when and if his works were ever finished comes up. My understanding is that he was sufficiently wealthy not to have to earn his living from art, and that might explain his refusal to take part in the Impressionist exhibitions – he didn’t need to. It’s rather important because it establishes his independence and his connection with the history of art as well as explaining his use of modern, interesting sitters, and his freedom to leave pictures unfinished. For example, Madame Manet with a Cat(c.1880) has a wonderful sketchiness. Despite a cat’s propensity to settle comfortably on a warm lap, they still remain unpredictable, so the painting is a beautiful combination of permanence and catching the moment.

Michael Craig-Martin RA

Edouard Manet, 'Emile Zola', 1868.
Edouard Manet, ‘Emile Zola’, 1868. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, donation de Mme Emile Zola, 1918/Photo © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN/ H. Lewandowski.

Emile Zola (1868) is a portrait but it has a complex background that makes it more than just a head or a face. Several things strike me about it. First, it is a very readable picture. You can see what it’s showing you quite easily, but it’s more complicated than it might appear. In Emile Zola, as in most of Manet’s paintings, everything is pushed very close to the surface of the picture. Manet is one of the first artists whose paintings seem to invade the viewer’s space, as though he was expanding out beyond the canvas. One of the ways he does that is by excluding from the composition any diagonal receding into space; he doesn’t really use perspective. He layers things, and pushes them close together.

In the background, for example, he includes the picture within the picture above Zola’s desk: a print by Goya after Velázquez, his own painting of Olympia, a Japanese print almost like a trompe l’oeil detail, carrying a great deal of information in such an economical way. They are references to his own work and sources, all in relation to Zola: one image layered on top of another. He’s making a connection between the two of them, in a very tangible way. You can tell he has great admiration for Zola; there’s something about the figure that is so sympathetic. The ground of the painting is always parallel to the surface, so although Zola is visible down almost to his feet, he is seen essentially in profile. This makes him appear flatter, and again pushed forward in the picture. It is a very modern way to structure a picture – across the surface.

Edouard Manet, 'Portrait of Fanny Clauss' (Study for The Balcony), 1868-69.
Edouard Manet, ‘Portrait of Fanny Clauss’ (Study for The Balcony), 1868-69. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

Manet’s work is often enigmatic, as if there were a story going on, but he isn’t actually telling you what that story is. This is something I feel very comfortable with: in my own work I use very explicit imagery, and I often imply a narrative, without actually having one. It’s not easy to read the look on people’s faces in Manet’s portraits. There’s a sense of self-engagement. That is again extraordinarily modern.

I’ve always thought of him as an ancestor of the contemporary, one of the points at which modern art starts. He still seems amazingly fresh. There’s a 20th-century idea about painterliness – loose painting, very direct, sometimes lightly touched – and Manet anticipated it. He doesn’t paint like an Impressionist, and certainly not like an academic salon painter either. His simplicity and directness is something you see much more of in Cézanne, Picasso and 20th-century art.

You can see why people feel that Manet had antecedents in Velázquez and Titian: these artists also used paint in this very painterly, loose way. But they painted much more heavily than Manet did. Another picture in the exhibition, Portrait of Fanny Clauss (Study for the Balcony) 1868-69, is a small sketch for a larger painting, and it is amazingly lightly painted. There’s a wonderful sense of presence and great detail in something that is almost transparently light.

Sean Scully RA

I think of Manet as a huge influence on me, in fact, in a way I model myself a little bit on his position. He is not out there in the same way as Van Gogh, Gauguin or Monet, who were pointriders for an interest in chromatic values, they were free-wheeling in that respect. And polar opposite was, of course, Cézanne, whose work is all about structure.

But Manet continues the tradition that descended from Spanish painting. The great difference is that his paintings are still based on shadow and always tied to drama. Manet had one foot in the future, but the other in the past, connecting mid-19th-century French painting with 17th- and 18th-century Spanish art. That is exemplified in The Dead Toreador (c.1864), which is an essay in black, grey, cream and pink. So Manet is facing two ways. In The Railway (1873) the mother is looking back at us, and the daughter seems to be looking to the future. The Impressionists were obsessed by smoke, which was exactly what they were trying to create, visually – an object without edges. It also stood for the future: steam engines, speed, mechanical process. The child is looking at it through iron railings: a gridded, mechanised future.

Edouard Manet, 'Berthe Morisot in Mourning', 1874.
Edouard Manet, ‘Berthe Morisot in Mourning’, 1874. Private Collection.

Manet’s paintings are minimal and constructed in blocks, which is something he had in common with Zurbarán and Ribera, who made equally as much of the importance of their medium – as if the narrative and drama could be psychologically contained within the materiality of the pigment. And the Spanish inherited that from Titian. In the beautiful portrait, Berthe Morisot in Mourning (1874), what you’ve got is blocks of black – and black, of course, is central to Spanish painting going back to Goya, Velázquez and Ribera. The zones in Manet’s painting retain their separate identity, causing high drama. As Matisse said, black is a colour, so is grey. I’ve inherited an incredible interest in grey from Manet particularly.

In Manet there is this great sense of physical weight, materiality, and moving the black around within itself, in a wonderful free way – free and classic at the same time, timeless and temporal all at once. It used to be that we were obsessed with the more obviously radical painters but Manet has gained prominence and power over time, so now he is referred to as the prince of painters.

Manet’s paintings have a kind of aristocratic distance. They are restrained and simultaneously exuberant. That marks them out. So does his way of classicising colour, and using black and grey – in tandem with extraordinarily beautiful, sketchy brushwork. Manet’s brushwork isn’t hysterical. It has a nobility about it. The brush-stroke is expressive and eternal at the same time. It’s slowed down, like Eric Clapton’s nickname, ‘slow hand’.

First published in RA

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