Treasures from the Vault: Manet’s Friends

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Today we get to talk about one of my favorite artists, Édouard Manet. For me, it doesn’t get much better than my man Manet. Since our museum focuses mainly on American art, I don’t get to talk about him often. But today I can!

However, before we talk about our two works of art (yes, two treasures today!) I’ll give you a brief introduction to Manet and his career. Often referred to by art historians as “the man who invented modernity”, Manet didn’t have an easy artistic career. Painting at the height of the popularity of academic art (idyllic landscapes, beautiful goddesses, heroic war scenes, and perfectly banal still lives, all rendered in what we now think of as photorealism) Manet’s style was a shock to the system. He was a disciple of Gustave Courbet and Spanish painters Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, and as a result his handling of paint was much rougher, and, as he believed, more “real”. In his powerful brushstrokes and bold use of color, Manet instills a sense of barely restrained energy in his compositions. This sizzle is especially seen in 1863’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and 1865’s Olympia. The women in both of these paintings stare frankly out at the viewer, directly and almost hostilely engaging with them, all while being unabashedly nude. This combination of nudity and direct eye contact are what gained Manet an infamous reputation. Nude women were nothing new in art; but until now they’d always been passive, allowing the viewer to gaze upon them while looking demurely away. Critics and the public alike were outraged, and derisive reviews quickly resulted.

Édouard Manet, French, 1832-1883. Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas, 1863. Photo courtesy of the Google Art Project, Public Domain.

While Manet’s career and life went well beyond 1865, and I could go on about him forever, for the sake of this post we’re going to stop and focus on this mention of anger towards his work. To Manet, his work was truly modern. He drew inspiration from works by old masters like Titian and reworked them with modern symbolism and characters, creating a link from “proper” academic art to his. Unfortunately, very few of his viewers entertained this idea, instead remarking on the ugliness and immorality of Manet’s canvases – Olympia even had to be moved to keep visitors from attacking it! But I digress.

While the old fuddy-duddies at the Louvre and in bourgeois society resisted Manet and his work, there were others who praised him. This brings us to this month’s treasures: an 1868 etching Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, and an 1872 etching Berthe Morisot. Though these etchings can’t quite capture the vivacity of Manet’s paintings, it’s important that he captured these two individuals in such an intimate manner. Both, in their own way, championed Manet and his work.

Baudelaire came into Manet’s life first, and he himself was an established poet and art critic – one of the most important in his generation. It’s unclear how the two officially met, but they quickly established a close friendship that lasted until Baudelaire’s death in 1867. Baudelaire regularly praised Manet for his affinity to paint the present moment with the depth of a classical painting. The poet and critic’s friendship ultimately encouraged Manet to push the boundaries of his painting even further, eventually becoming the painter of modern life and opening the door for Impressionism and abstraction. In 1845, when Baudelaire was waiting for something new to emerge on the art scene, he wrote that “the true painter for whom we are waiting would be the one who could find an epic quality in contemporary life and make us understand ‘combien nous sommes grands et poetique dans nos cravats et nos bottes verries (how big and poetic we are in our cravats and our boots)’”. Once Manet made his way on to the art scene, Baudelaire believed he’d found the artist who could fulfill his statement.

Édouard Manet, French, 1832-1883. Portrait of Charles Baudelaire. Etching, 1868. Gift of Wray McCalester. Public Domain.

Morisot proved to have a more complicated relationship with Manet. She was ultimately both his friend and his muse, but the two may have also been in love. They were clearly friendly with one another, as seen in their numerous correspondence, but as Manet was married when the two met in 1968, we’ll never be sure. In any case, in addition to modeling for Manet 11 different times, Morisot also adopted Manet’s expressive brushstroke and style. The two challenged and engaged each other artistically, resulting in personal and intimate works of art. He always painted her as a beautiful object, rather different than his aggressive figures in Olympia and Déjuener sur l’herbe. Though the two began drifting apart as Morisot became more engaged with the growing Impressionist movement, which Manet, while he encouraged these younger artists, refused to be identified as, he and Morisot stayed close to the end of his life. Of course, this was helped when she married his brother in 1874. She always defended her maturing Impressionist style and subject matter to Manet, never following him. Quite simply, she was one of the most captivating women in his life.

Édouard Manet, French, 1832-1883. Berthe Morisot. Etching, 1872. Museum Purchase, 1958.16. Public Domain.

By creating these close and personal works of his friends, Manet was able to thank Baudelaire and Morisot for their support. We’ve briefly discussed how Manet struggled to find wide acceptance while raging against the establishment, but from the beginning, Baudelaire and Morisot were in his corner. We see evidence of artists painting those who supported and encouraged them throughout the course of art history, and it’s often done in intimate ways like these portraits. Portrait of Charles Baudelaire and Berthe Morisot weren’t created to be grand works, but are instead personal and private, and in that way more meaningful.

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