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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?