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; royalacademy.org.uk), 26 Jan to 14 Apr

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players