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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Follow the path to fame and controversy of the irrepressible Édouard Manet.

Édouard Manet was born in Paris, France, on 23 January 1832. He was a famous French painter, and one of the first artists to paint scenes of modern day life during the nineteenth century. He was also part of the artistic movement who helped to shift the focus of painting from realism to that of the impressionist era. Manet was born into a life of privilege, with his mother being the daughter of a French diplomatic, and his father being a successful and influential judge. Auguste Manet expected his son to follow in his footsteps and to peruse a career in law. However, Manet wanted to forge his own path and it was his Uncle who supported his decision to become a painter.

With his Uncle's encouragement, Manet pursued a course in the fine arts from 1850 to 1856 under the guidance of Thomas Couture. It was while undertaking this artistic learning that he was introduced to Antonin Proust, who later became the Minister of Fine Arts as well as a good friend. During these years Manet also visited many European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where he was further influenced by painters such as Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez.

It was after his studies that Manet opened his first art studio in 1856. During this period in Manet's career, he adopted a simple style of painting and applied wide, loose sweeping brush strokes onto the canvas. His style during this time was similar to that of Gustave Courbet a Realist painter, who famously painted contemporary works of everyday life such as The Absinthe Drinker in 1859. Manet's contemporary works during this time were successful and he exhibited two of his works in the Salon during 1861. One of these paintings showed his mother and father, his mother at the time had suffered a stroke, but this painting did not receive a warm welcome from the critics. However the second painting, The Spanish Singer was well received with Theophile Gautier moved the canvas to a more prime location in the gallery.

Music in the Tuileries, painted in 1860. This painting which is often referred to as the Tuileries was inspired by the painter Velázquez and was one of Manet's first paintings that depicted a scene of leisure. The scene embraces the beautiful Tuileries gardens. What the observer gets is a sense of what is must have felt like to wander around the grounds. Although many critics claimed that the painting looked unfinished, many complemented the painting on being able to evoke the sounds and smells of the gardens. The painting shows many individuals including a self portrait of himself, alongside fellow musicians, artists and authors.

Luncheon on the Grass, painted 1863 This painting was not exhibited at the Salon, as they had rejected it, but Manet did exhibit it in his own studio and at the Salon of the Rejected later that same year. Within this painting, Manet chose to use models known to him including that of his wife, Suzanne; Victorine Meurent who was a model; Ferdinand Leenhoff who was to become his brother in law and his brother. This painting was hugely controversial in its depiction of a nude woman sitting alongside fully dressed men. Many critics also did not like the fact that the painting was very much 'sketch like' as opposed to being a fully formed painting.

Olympia, painted in 1863 Manet very much based this painting upon the great Renaissance artists, and in particular was influenced by the paintings, Titian's Venus of Urbino and The Nude Maja. Manet had been asked many times to paint a nude to exhibit at the Salon gallery, and so painted, Olympia. This was later exhibited there in 1865, as they happily accepted the somewhat bold and strong depiction of this French, nude, prostitute, as it helped to entice more views and created scandal. Both her expression and posture are confrontational, with a certain lack of modesty that was required during this period.

Manet's father died in 1862, and a year later he marred Suzanne Leenhoff who he had been romantically involved with for ten years. It was in 1852 that Suzanne gave birth to her son, Leon, out of wedlock. The child's paternity was unknown, although many believed Manet to be the father. Leon featured in many of Manet's paintings, the most famous being, Boy Carrying a Sword which he painted in 1861. This can be seen today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Leon is also featured in the background of the painting, The Balcony. In 1868, Manet befriended Berthe Morisot, and it is believed that she is the individual who encouraged Manet to embrace the plain air (outdoor painting) movement. It was in 1864 that she married his brother.

Manet was greatly influenced by the many Impressionist painters of his day, the two who had the greatest influence were Morisot and Monet. This influence can be seen in his choice of using light colours, and in the plain air technique of painting. However, he still used the colour, black, in his paintings that set him aside from his fellow Impressionist artists. Manet painted many scenes of café life in Paris. Manet painted naturalistic scenes of everyday people drinking beer, reading, writing, chatting and listening to music. Manet would sketch the painting while he sat and observed the scene before him. Popular settings that he used included Brasserie Reichshoffen that was the basis for his painting, At the Café, 1978. This painting shows people sat at the bar, with one lady facing the observer.

Another café inspired painting is that of Corner of a Cafe Concert in which we observe a man smoking, while a waitress attends to other individuals, serving drinks. The painting The Beer Drinkers shows a woman drinking beer with a friend. The Cafe Concert is a café inspired painting that depicts the night. Manet was very comfortable in those kind of environments and enjoyed painting people in social situations when they were at ease. Manet painted many scenes involving the upper classes enjoying social occasions. Paintings include those of Masked Ball at the Opera that showed many people enjoying the party festivities, and The Luncheon in which he showed individuals sat around a dining table in a large dining hall. In The Races at Longchamp we observe racehorses that appear to be running at the observer to finish a race.

Manet chose to paint many pictures that were both inspired and influenced by war. The first of these paintings was Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama that he painted in 1864. This battle, that took place during the American Civil War, happened just off the French coast, and many critics believe that Manet witnessed the battle. During the years, 1867 to 1869, the French were involved in a war with Mexico, and this led Manet to paint three different paintings, known as Execution of Emperor Maximilian. These paintings were the largest in Manet's collection, with many critics stating that the size is of great relevance and is linked to the importance that Manet placed upon them.

Manet liked to paint street scenes of Paris. One such painting, The Rue Mosnier Decked with Flags is a striking image of blue, while and red blinds that cover the shops on either side of the street. The same street is used in other paintings, one of which shows the road being repaired, and in another, a man with only one leg can be seen walking down the street on crutches. In the 1873 panting, The Railway which is often referred to as The Gare Saint-Lazare, we see the panoramic Paris landscape in all of its beauty. On the grass sits Victorine Meurent. She is resting against a fence while cradling a puppy. The little girl who is sat beside her, has her back to the observer, as she is watching the passing train. This was the last painting to feature Victorine Meurent.

Édouard Manet died on April 30, 1883, he was 51. He had suffered from gangrene in his left foot, and as a result had to have it amputated. It was sadly eleven days later that the infection led to his death. His body now rests at the Passy Cemetery, that is located in central Paris.