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Preview - Manet: Portraying Life

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