Manet and woman: Portraying Life

As an exhibition of portraits by the great French painter opens in London, Adrian Hamilton asks why he treated his male and female subjects so differently

The Royal Academy claims its new exhibition of the painter Edouard Manet is the largest so far in Britain and the first to be devoted to his portraiture. Can it really be true of an artist whose work is so well known over here, of whom one thought there was nothing to left say beyond glorying in his deep blacks, those wondrous whites and the endless experiments with traditional forms put to new work in contemporary life?

The answer is that there is always something fresh to be learnt about this most sociable and elusive of artists, friend of most of the novelists and critics of his day, revered as a radical father figure by younger artists and respected as a regular contributor to the salons of the establishment. Portraiture, which he pursued in oil and later in pastel throughout his relatively brief career of some two decades (he died aged 51 in 1883), is as good a way as any of exploring his varied works.

Not that you go to Manet for penetrating portraiture. Although he used models as well as friends and insisted on painting only from prolonged and frequent sittings, it wasn't to explore the character or dig deep into the psyche of his subjects. It was to comment on their place through their appearance. All Manet's works were an assault. All, except for the flower paintings so derided by modern curators, were efforts to catch something of the contemporary world about him. Each time he took brush to canvas, as his friend the poet Mallarmé recorded, "he plunges headlong into it, "explaining that "the eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew from the lesson before it."

Very few of his extensive number of portraits were commissioned. Manet, the son of wealthy parents and a notable figure among artistic circles from early on, didn't need to earn his crust this way. Instead he painted his family, particularly his wife, the Dutch-born Suzanne Leenhoff, and her illegitimate son, Léon, friends from among his wide circle of cultural contacts, professional models and, especially in his later years, pretty young women of his acquaintance. Some works he sold but many he kept back, half finished or roughly sketched.

What was it that he was seeking from these pictures? The simplest answer is "realism", the observation of what was new and contemporary, which his mentor, the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, proclaimed as the true test of modern art. Realism meant not just painting accurately from life, but stripping art of all the connotations of moral lesson and monumentality as in traditional art. The new hero was the man about town, the observer, the dandy.

But realism in portraiture for Manet – as Baudelaire, who didn't regard his friend as the best exponent of his philosophy, judged – was never a matter of recording the face and figure with verisimilitude. "I cannot do anything without the model," declared Manet. "I do not know how to invent… If I amount to anything today, I put it down to precise interpretation and faithful analysis." But it was the "interpretation" and "analysis" that made him so different.

With the men it was to convey what they meant for the world about them. His pictures are as much a comment as a rendering of the man. Portrait of Zacharie Astruc, the writer and critic who had done much to support him in his early years, is divided into two parts. On the right Astruc sits somewhat pompously with his hand thrust into his jacket, while to the left is seen his wife in the kitchen, along with the symbols of the domestic life which underpins him.

The portrait of Emile Zola, another great supporter, arranges the novelist with the attributes of his art criticism, an open book on Spanish art in his hand, a Japanese print and a print of the Olympia nude above his desk. It is a worthy portrait painted in gratitude for the support Manet received when he needed it, but it suggests also a comment on the over-intellectualisation of art criticism. The pictures of the statesman Georges Clemenceau and the journalist and politician, his childhood friend Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel Proust) have determination and strength but also a self-conscious posing which subverts their importance.

As the pictures get bigger, indeed, it is hard not to think that Manet isn't deliberately overblowing them to the point of absurdity. The life-size Portrait of Carolus-Duran of 1876, Portrait of M Brun from 1879 and the Portrait of M Arnaud ("The rider") from around 1873-4 all have a quality of self-regard about them which is at variance with the monumentality of the form. That they remain unfinished may indicate that Manet didn't think they were working, or it may be that the subversion of form was all he wanted to convey.

With women it is quite different. Manet was clearly entranced by them, soaking up their vivacity, admiring their poise and revelling in a pretty face. It doesn't appear to have been predatory. Indeed the most touching pictures in the exhibition remain those of his wife, whom he painted more often and for longer than any other sitter; she is depicted at the piano, stroking the cat, resting in the conservatory. The plump and humorous face is always done with fondness, the background painted with quick, fleeting brushstrokes that envelop the sitter in the flowers around her or the dress she is wearing.

Dress is always important to Manet, as are flowers (why can't we have a proper exhibition of Manet and flowers? It would tell so much about him). He liked to dress up his models in the highest fashion and painted their frocks with relish. The portraits of his fellow artist and sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot, of which the Royal Academy has three, are just stunning projections of black: the black of her unblinking eyes and the black modish dress and hat in Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (there are the flowers again) from 1872 and black of her attire in Berthe Morisot in Mourning after the death of her father in 1874. But then look at the white of the dress of his only pupil, Eva Gonzales, in a deliberately gauche picture of her at her easel, or the red and blue of the Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen, the tailored black again of the riding costume in The Amazon or the muted and pastel colours of the fashionable dresses of the models that he used for his series of the seasons commissioned by Antonin Proust.

For Manet, dress was an assertion of modernity, a way of depicting the modern bourgeois woman who was emerging from the constraints of aristocratic past. But going round these galleries it is difficult not to believe that he thought women the better, or at least the more life-enhancing, of the species. It is noticeable that in almost all the portraits of couples or couples with child – in The Game of Croquet, the rather touching portrait of The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil and In the Garden of 1870 – it is the women who take the foremost role. It's more than their attractions and the dress, it's that Manet, I think, looks on them as the future more than the men lounging in the background.

Two ambiguous pictures give some idea of the thoughts of this reserved man. One is The Luncheon of 1868, in which the 16-year-old Léon Leenhoff stares fixedly out, an anxious woman and unconcerned old man, presumably his parents, behind him. To his side are antique weapons and helmet, symbols surely of a male future of war which should by now be redundant (Manet was to learn better when caught up in the Siege of Paris two years later). The other picture is even more stark but puzzling. In The Railway of 1872, a mother stares up at us from her book while her child, her back to us, peers through the railings down on the rail tracks. The barred composition is of confinement for them both. The question is whether the trains of the modern world or the books will take them out of it.

As Manet's health declined, he resorted more and more, like Degas, to pastel as the quickest and easiest way to express himself on canvas. The portraits became fresher and more personable. Many of the critics of the day preferred them to his more conceptualised portraits and carefully arranged groups in oils. You can see their point. Works such as The Animal Painter La Rochenoire from 1882 and Mlle Suzette Lemaire, Full Face from the previous year have an immediacy that is lacking in his earlier works.

In Manet's portraiture, the parts don't add up to a whole. His efforts to start each picture anew don't make for an easy synthesis and the RA's curators struggle to categorise them in themes or to make a coherent argument of their case that Manet was trying to meld in these works portraiture with genre painting. A gathering of these varied and sometimes uneven works can't express all of the man. For that you really do need his bigger set pieces.

This is not a gathering of masterpieces. Nor is it a comprehensive showing of his portraiture, given the paucity of the borrowings from France. But what you have is the outpouring of one of the great geniuses of art who stood each time before his canvas with a subject, thought and thought about what he wanted to say and then worked to express it. Forget the whole, just look at the individual works and feel the mind behind them.

Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000; royalacademy.org.uk) Saturday to 14 April

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