Portrait of a Railway Child

Edouard Manet’s virtuosity in painting the human form is unsurpassed—and highly original

Michael Prodger

The honorary title of “the father of modern art” is like a bird that can- not settle. It alights briefly on, say, Duchamp or Caspar David Friedrich or El Greco or late Titian and flies off again. Pick your artist and look hard enough and some- thing “modern” is likely to be found. One of the more frequent resting places, however, is Edouard Manet (1832-83) and his claims are among the soundest.

Manet was the 19th-century artist who best correspond- ed to the poet Baudelaire’s definition of “the painter of modern life”: part flâneur, part “passionate spectator”, an urban figure not immune to fashion. With his upper middle-class background Manet could afford to please himself; he was a thoroughgoing Parisian (“The countryside only has its charms for those who are not obliged to live there”), charming, chic (as a young man he had a penchant for yellow trousers), and a fixture of café culture.

As a painter he was a traditionalist rebel. His canvases Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia caused two of the greatest scandals in French art precisely because they displayed a deep knowledge of Renaissance art and seemingly traduced it by making the main figure in each a naked prostitute and painting her with little regard for detail or finish. These were reworkings of a Giorgion- esque fête champêtre and Titian’s Venus of Urbino that took established forms and add- ed to them a confrontational sexuality.

The pictures made him the critics’ favourite target or, as one commentator noted: “And Manet! One could say that criticism has gathered up all the insults which it has poured on his precursors for half a century, to throw them at his head all at one time.” Despite the near universal abuse he kept coming back for more and between 1859 and his death he submitted work to 19 out of a possible 21 of the official Salon exhibitions.

Another aspect of his art that riled commentators was his portraiture, which was hard to categorise—were his portraits straight likenesses or rather genre paintings of the people who inhabited the modern world? In these pictures too Manet eschewed the niceties of handling. One of his early sitters, Madame Brunet, was so affronted by his crude paintwork that she burst into tears when she saw the picture and refused to accept it.

Prising Le déjeuner and Olympia away from the Musée d’Orsay has not proved feasible so in Manet: Portraying Life—the first exhibition of its kind here—the Royal Acad- emy has gathered some 50 of his portraits— as well as his pastels and prints—as a means to examine his role in 19th-century art and beyond.

As with his more celebrated pictures the key to his portraits lies in the past. Among other places Manet travelled both to the Netherlands and to Spain where he studied first hand the work of Hals, Goya and, above all, Velázquez. These three, in his estimation, “really knew what they were doing . . . they never lost sight of reality”. Reality was an important attribute to him because he equated it with modernity: it meant the particular rather than the ideal and the momentary rather than the marmoreal. So determined was he to be a Realist that he liked to claim that he painted his portraits in a single sitting; his subjects, however, frequently told a different story. One model complained that “after the fifteenth sitting, my portrait was no further advanced than on the first day”, possibly because Manet also used to scrape off the previous day’s work to start again. The painter’s eye, he said, should see “only that which it looks upon, and that, as for the first time”.

This was scrupulously planned realism. With many of his straight portraits he would isolate his sitters against empty back- grounds, as in his images of his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot and the journalist-politician Antonin Proust. With others he would make them part of the world. The Railway (1873) shows a woman and a girl sitting by some railings by the side of a railway cutting near the Gare Saint-Lazare where the child watches a locomotive pass by, leaving behind a plume of smoke. The pair are real people: the girl is the daughter of Manet’s neighbour Alphonse Hirsch, the woman is the painter- model Victorine Meurent, who had appeared so daringly nude in Le déjeuner and Olympia. In the background is the entrance to Manet’s studio.

This is then a double portrait (albeit an unconventional one—the girl is seen from behind), a street scene, a piece of role-playing, an example of social observation and a slice of self-reference. It is also a response to the advent of photography, a topic of interest to Manet and his peers. However well photography could capture likenesses with its long exposures, it couldn’t match what Manet was up to: no col- our, no immediacy and no transience (that puff of smoke was beyond a camera’s capabilities).

The same is true of his Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), which is nominally a painting of a fashionable crowd taking their ease and listening to a band on a sunny weekend but which includes portraits of the painter’s family and friends, including Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, Jacques Offenbach and Manet’s brother Eugène. It is a painting that also shows why he was such a hero figure to the Impressionists in that it has all the breadth of touch and spontaneity of a picture painted en plein air even though such a crowded composition could only be produced in the studio.

However sympathetic Manet was to the Impressionists and their own interest in modern life, he never joined them and in- deed urged Monet to have a word with Re- noir: “You should encourage him to give up painting straight away; what he does is sim- ply awful.” Unfortunately Monet didn’t follow the advice; so Manet’s place in art history has to stand on his paintings alone.

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