Manet Portraits: The Blurred Boundaries Between Portrait and Genre Painting – Review

Edouard Manet is one of the best-known and influential figures in the development of modern art, yet somehow, the Royal Academy’s “Manet: Portraying Life” is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK.  Additionally, never before has there been an exhibition that focuses on Manet’s portraiture, despite the continued presence of portraits throughout his oeuvre.

Bringing together over 50 paintings from collections, both public and private, around the world, “Manet: Portraying Life” looks at the role of portraits not only as depictions of the sitter(s) but also as a portrayal of modern life.  The exhibition is curated by MaryAnne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs at the Royal Academy of Arts, and Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton Senior Curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture before 1900 at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.  The exhibition is organised thematically as opposed to chronologically as would be typical for a retrospective, and this arrangement highlights Manet’s status as a transitional figure, situated between Realism and Impressionism with his own distinct style, and the blurred boundaries between portrait and genre paintings.

The thematic arrangement begins by looking at Manet’s use of his family for portrait subjects.  Manet’s wife, Suzanne Leenhoff features prominently in the entirety of his career, both as a specific portrait subject and also as an actress in scenes of modern life.  “Mme. Manet in the Conservatory” (1879) is one of the many portraits of Suzanne.  This particular work portrays Suzanne as a “bourgeois woman at leisure”, a depiction that demonstrates the unclear distinction between straight portrait and genre.  The distinction is further blurred by the revelation that the painting was displayed in the couple’s bedroom and was not meant for a public audience.  Also part of this section is a rare self-portrait – though the artist continually practiced portraiture of family, friends, acquaintances, and models, he rarely used himself as the subject of his work.  The work, dating from 1878-9, depicts the artist standing in front of a neutral, non-descript background – he is not at work.  Though the artist did not create many self-portraits, he was the subject of a number of photographic portraits by others.  Several of these photographs are displayed touching on the minor but recurring theme of the role of photography in the practice of painted portraits.

The second room is devoted to just one work – “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” (1862).  The work is rather small, and despite the activity and busyness of the scene, the painting cannot fill the room on its own.  Manet appears in the corner as the leader of the gathering and other familiar faces from the Parisian art and culture circle make appearances throughout the work.  Described as a “cultural self-portrait”, the depiction of the volksgeist of the mid 19th-century is perhaps more important than the individuals portrayed.  Compositionally the work is starkly delineated along a horizontal plane, separating man and nature.  The lower half is filled to the brim with well-to-do men and woman gathering for a concert in the park, while the upper half is soft and airy with trees and sky.

Interestingly, the third room looks at Manet’s world – primarily Paris – and the artist’s biography, forming an informational portrait of Manet.  Here the artist becomes the subject and visitors can become acquainted with his life and environs.  A large map points to Manet’s various apartments and studios in Paris as well as those of his colleagues and friends.  A timeline chronicles Manet’s development as an artist from his studies and numerous Salon rejections, to his early death in 1883.  Also of interest in this biographical room is Manet’s album of photographic calling cards.  Actors, artists, politicians, or anyone who wished, could create calling cards that were exchanged and collected amongst acquaintances.  Manet’s album is too fragile to travel, but a digital representation grants insight into this hobby and the importance of portraiture.

The last several rooms look at the subjects of Manet’s portraits more specifically – artists, writers, actors, wealthy individuals, and professional models.  It is in these last rooms where the themes of the exhibition really come to light – the blurring boundary of portrait and genre, the contrast between work and leisure, the divide between women and men, and the influence of photography.

Paris in the 19th century was rapidly changing and the urban of reforms of Napoleon III and Georges-Eugene Haussmann created a new, modern city.  The grand boulevards and improved infrastructure let to improved living conditions (for some), new cathedrals of culture, and increased anxieties of social standing in modern life.  In this new, modern Paris, the arts flourished and public spaces became a stage for the intermingling of classes.  Manet himself was born into a middle-class family and was comfortable in the highest circles of society, but also, as an artist, often associated himself with artists and performers on the fringes of society.  This is seen in Manet’s representation of fellow artists as well as writers and stage actors.  In addition to his friends and acquaintances, Manet also completed a number of commissioned portraits of the wealthier members of society – these portraits were a source of income for the artist but also required conventionality.

Despite the changes in Paris, there still existed a strong divide between the lives of men and women.  Women were mostly regulated to the domestic sphere while men were allowed to roam the city as flaneurs.  Working class women and women professionals caused a general social anxiety, and this is evidenced in Manet’s portraits of both men and women.  Manet acted as a mentor to the younger Impressionist painters, but his only student was the young Eva Gonzales.  One of Manet’s most well known portraits is of Eva Gonzales from 1870.  This large portrait somewhat surprisingly depicts the artist at work, but it quickly becomes apparent that, according to the portrait, she is not a “real” artist, not one of the men.  Dressed in an evening gown as an upper class woman, she is seen as an amateur and not a professional.  She is shown to be painting a still life, which was considered appropriate subject matter for women, but is not representative of Gonzales’s work of modern life paintings in a style similar to Manet and the Impressionists.  Additionally, the painting is already finished and framed.  Despite Manet’s respect for Gonzales and her work, this portrait, as grand and beautiful as it is, undermines Gonzales as an artist.  In contrast, the portrait of Emile Zola from 1868 depicts the writer deep in thought, at work at his cluttered desk.  Surrounding him is evidence of being cultured and intellectual – stacks of worn and used books, Japanese prints, and a copy of Manet’s Olympia.  The two men, artist and subject, here are on equal terms, unlike the relationship with Gonzales.  Berthe Morisot married Manet’s brother and as an artist and member of the family becomes a frequent subject of Manet’s paintings.  Morisot was well respected as an artist, but Manet does not paint her at work, she also is separated from her professional identity.

The curators most focus on the theme of portraiture and genre painting, or rather, the distinction between the two.  One of the final paintings of the exhibition: “The Railway” (1873) is one of the paintings that blurs the boundary between portrait and genre.  A seated woman looks up from her book and a small girl stands with her back to the viewer.  We know the model to be Victorine Meurent, but that does not mean it is a portrait of the woman herself instead of an actress in a scene.  The painting serves as a microcosm of modern Parisian life – a woman and child in a domestic space, separated from the urban environment and public sphere.  One of Manet’s most recognizable paintings would be a perfect example for this theme, but whether by curatorial choice or through an unwillingness to lend the painting, “The Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1882) does not make an appearance.  It is both a portrait of a bar maid and a portrayal of everyday life and would have added a further layer of complexity to the representation of Manet’s career.

The aspect of the exhibition I found most intriguing but not fully developed is the role of photography on the practice of portrait painting.  With the recent advent of photography, portraits became less exclusive and more accessible.  A painted portrait asserted wealth, influence, and power, as seen in the status portraits.  Throughout the exhibition a number of photographs are displayed in groups, both of the artist and his subjects.  While there is certainly an element of staging the scene in the photographs, the painted portraits subtly hint at illusionism.  In a letter to Emile Zola in 1868 Manet asserted, “I cannot do anything without a model.  I do not know how to invent. … If I amount to anything today I put it down to precise interpretation and faithful analysis.”  This is true to a certain extent, but elements of fabrication are apparent in a number of the portraits.  “The Promenade (Mme. Gamby)” (c. 1880) appears to be painted outside but was likely painted inside the artist’s studio.  The portrait of Georges Clemenceau from 1879-80 shows the statesman in a similar pose to an earlier photograph, possibly because the photograph was used as a reference to compensate for little sitting time.  Manet’s style is also related to photography.  While striving for realism was important to earlier painters, Manet deliberately flattened and strongly delineated his forms created a two-dimensionality similar to that created by photographs.  Manet seemed to simultaneously be working with and against photography, and this relationship could have been emphasised more in the exhibition.

The thematic as opposed to chronological arrangement was a smart choice, allowing conversations among the works of similar subjects.  The exhibition, however, suffers from difficult lighting and the grandeur of the Royal Academy gallery space.  Even the largest of works are best viewed in close proximity, but the glare obscures some of the details.  The largeness of the space dwarfs many of the paintings, which would benefit from a more intimate gallery setting.  The straightforward arrangement and display is refreshing and clear.  “Manet: Portraying Life” is not earth shattering by any means, but is most certainly well executed and a pleasant viewing experience.




Words/Images: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2013

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