Preview - Manet: Portraying Life

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The man in black gets a major showing at last, says Claudia Pritchard

At the funeral in Paris of Edouard Manet on 3 May 1883, the pallbearers included Claude Monet and Emile Zola. Edgar Degas followed the cortège to Passy cemetery. "Thursday I am going to Manet's funeral," wrote Camille Pissarro to his son, Lucien. Not all of Paris would mourn the passing at only 51 of an artist with whom many had never come to terms and whose constantly shifting style they found unsettling. But his widow and model, Suzanne, her son, Léon – possibly Manet's lovechild, or that of his father – and the leading figures in the Parisian intellectual world, felt the loss keenly.

Upon his death, Manet left some 430 oil paintings, about half of which were portraits or genre works with strong portrait elements. And it is this aspect of his art which is celebrated in the first big exhibition of the year at the Royal Academy, and the first ever major retrospective of the artist in Britain.

Manet: Portraying Life promises to be an exciting route to a deeper understanding of the artist variously dubbed Father of Modernism, the Founder of Naturalism and the Godfather of Impressionism. In truth, he will not slip neatly into any school of painting. He declined to exhibit with Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and Morisot at the first Impressionism exhibition in 1874, preferring, explains MaryAnne Stevens, curator of the new exhibition, to gain the approval of the traditional and influential Salon shows.

The Royal Academy is, in effect, re-creating the huge circle of intellectuals that surrounded Manet, for many of the portraits are of his friends. Soirées on Tuesdays and Thursdays at his Paris home attracted the outstanding artists, writers and radical politicians of the day. But these friends and supporters could despair of him, one complaining that after 15 sittings a portrait appeared not to be any further on than at the first sitting, and that an entire day's work would often be scraped off at nightfall, and the piece begun again.

This restless artist painted mostly in the studio, occasionally venturing with his brushes outdoors, but even his Music in the Tuileries Gardens, loaned by the National Gallery, is more about his circle of friends – and himself, for he is in the picture – than it is about the open air. He was a traveller too, his early days at sea, a calling chosen by his lawyer father, opening up the world to him. As a young midshipman, he was asked by his commander to teach drawing to the crew, and sketched likenesses of the officers. Once his father relented and allowed an artistic career on land, Manet would set off independently, to the Low Countries to see the work of Frans Hals and to Spain to marvel at Velazquez; it is these two artists who were to have a fundamental influence on his own painting.

As Lawrence W Nichols observes in the scholarly catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, in 1850, when Manet was 18 and studying in Paris with Thomas Couture, "a staggering 51,000 francs" was paid in the city by the 4th Marquis of Hertford for Portrait of a Gentleman by Hals. Now popularly known as The Laughing Cavalier, it is in the Wallace Collection, and one of the most recognised pictures in the world. Two years later, Manet would make the first of three trips to the Low Countries, and he formed the opinion that the Dutch Frans Hals was of Spanish descent, having come from a town once occupied by the Spanish. And like Hals, like Velazquez, like Goya, Manet was to become the master of the colour black.

From the penetrating eyes and sooty swathes of his sister-in-law and fellow artist Berthe Morisot in her portrait with violets, to the forbidding railings of The Railway, to the black servant and cat of the once shocking Olympia, Manet's exploration of a colour that is not even on the spectrum is intriguing. While he would splash out too with inky blues, sensuous reds and picture-book greens, the intensity of his blacks, his ability to make what would appear to be the absence of colour something living, exciting and dynamic, is an arresting skill indeed. "Manet was greater than us," said Pissarro, as recorded by the writer Ambroise Vollard. "He was able to make light out of black."

The poet Paul Valéry, who married the niece of Berthe Morisot, wrote in 1932 of Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets (1872), on loan to the Royal Academy from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris: "There is nothing greater in Manet's work .... Above all it is the black, the absolute black, the black of a mourning hat and the little hat's ribbons mingling with the chestnut locks … that affected me. The full power of these blacks, the cold simplicity of the background, the clear pink-and-white skin … this face with its big eyes, vaguely gazing in a profound abstraction and offering, as it were, a presence of absence."

In this captivating painting, there is no passing off ornate clothing as portraiture, although Manet scoffed at the 18th-century philosopher Diderot who had warned artists of his day that the hats they depicted would soon be unfashionable. "That is really stupid," the precocious adolescent retorted. "One has to be part of one's time, paint what one sees without worrying about fashion." And in that simple sentence, he laid down one of the tenets of modernity.

MaryAnne Stevens explains Manet's use of this relatively limited palette: "If you look at a Goya, Velazquez or Frans Hals, the colour range is very restricted – blacks and greys with the odd pink or gold, but all contained. Just as music unfolds and is not mimetic, in Manet you see colour first and recognise what it describes second. He uses a very limited palette and uses it across the full width of the canvas." The eye, it seems, will pick up the occasional, say, blues, appearing at rhythmic intervals and applied with conspicuous brushstrokes, and only subsequently identify these patches of colour as a sash or gown.

"Within black you have a myriad of tonal range," says Stevens. "Black-blacks, blue-blacks, grey-blacks …. He's never nervous about putting two blacks together." Nor was he nervous, in contrast to his contemporaries, about putting before the public work that was either unfinished or which showed reworkings, reminding us of Manet's physical presence. For Stevens believes that many of the portraits in this show, whoever may be the apparent subject, are in effect self-portraits. In her view, the great prize of the exhibition is the loan from Munich of The Luncheon, in which young Leon – in an inky velvet jacket which won the praise of Matisse –strides out of the centre of the picture. You feel the artist is a fourth diner at this enigmatic meal. Just out of sight, Edouard Manet, 1832-1883, the original Man in Black.


'Manet: Portraying Life': (020-7300 8000;, 26 Jan to 14 Apr

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower