Édouard Manet, an artist pilloried by critics throughout his lifetime but since dubbed the “father of modern art,” has finally been given a major show in the UK almost 130 years after his death.
The Royal Academy of Arts is to open Manet: Portraying Life in January, the first exhibition to focus on the French artist’s portrait works and the curator promised it will be “full of surprises”.
The 50 works on display will include some that have never been seen in the UK before including the portraits of Emile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé on loan from the Museé d’Orsay.
Curator MaryAnne Stevens, who has spent over five years bringing the works together, said the exhibition would examine the relationship between his portrait painting and his scenes of life.
“He is a crucial figure if we consider what happens in art from 1850 onwards” she said, adding he “stands as a towering figure”. Other highlights from the show – which RA chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith dubbed a “blockbuster with brains” – include The Luncheon from 1868 and The Railway painted five years later.
Manet divided critics throughout his life up to his death at the age of 51 in 1883, the curator said. “He wrote a despairing letter to Baudelaire saying he’s not certain he can bear it anymore, that it was just so negative.”
Ms Stevens said there had not been a major exhibition before as “It is very hard to get the pictures. Some are fragile, others are unfinished. He is also a difficult enigmatic figure and people shy away from him. It’s not easy looking like Monet.”
She said there had been an exhibition in 1954 of Manet and his Circle “but that was as much to do with his circle as with Manet”. Roger Fry also displayed his work in 1910 although it comprised just eight paintings, leading Ms Stevens to conclude this was the first major show of his work in the UK.
“Although he was regularly excoriated by the majority of critics he had a group of supporters,” she said, adding that since: “Manet has been recognised as, in a way, the father of modern art, and quite rightly so. He was celebrated by younger artists as the one who led the way. It wasn’t the Impressionists.”