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Can a portrait enjoy a cold beer on a hot day in Spring? Yes, of course it can. A portrait can also sing a sensuous aria.
We form portraits of people in our minds each time we meet someone and shape ideas about them as humans and as individuals. Conversing with a portrait similarly involves looking at facial expressions, clothing, posture, and attitude but here, the dialog that you receive in return takes the form of each artistic choice.
In his day, people were confounded by Édouard Manet’s choices. Today, he’s known as the father of Modern Art.
Édouard Manet; At the Café, c. 1879; Oil on canvas; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
When Manet (who should not be confused with the slightly younger French artist, Claude Monet) began to study painting in 1850 in Paris, his route to success depended upon adhering to the conservative rules set by the official art academy’s juried exhibitions, the Salon. The rules had been the same for the last several hundred years: paintings with historic, biblical, and mythological uplifting moral messages were preferred; brushstrokes should be blended and leave no trace of the artist’s hand; figures should look idealized rather than realistic; the complex rules of linear perspective, foreshortening (representing an object in depth), and chiaroscuro (the handling of light, shadow, and shade to create the illusion of three-dimensional form) must be followed; bright colors should be used sparingly; color should be naturalistic.
Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg; The Salon of 1861
To learn traditional techniques and conventions, Manet studied under Thomas Couture, an academic painter, for six years. He then destroyed many of the paintings he produced there and traveled to museums throughout Europe to copy the complex compositional elements and techniques of the Old Masters – Titian, Velázquez, Goya, Tintoretto, Ribera, Delacroix, and El Greco.
Thomas Couture; Troubadour, 1843; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Throughout history, copying served as an educational tool for both art students and accomplished artists. It’s an opportunity for artists to face their muses and work through the process of painting a straight copy, translation, interpretation, departure, or complete transformation of an artwork. Many artists were registered copyists at the Louvre – Manet, Turner, Ingres, Degas, Cassatt, Cézanne, Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, and Giacometti. “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read,” said Cézanne.
Left: Copyists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; 1900 and Right: at the Louvre, Paris. One of the outcomes of the French Revolution was that the king’s palace, the Louvre, became a public museum and the royal collection became national property. Artists were, and still are, permitted to refine their technique by copying masterpieces in the museum galleries. The copy, or pastiche, may not approach the same size as the original or reproduce the original artist’s signature. Once the work is finished, it’s stamped and signed by the head of the Louvre’s copy office and then the copyist is escorted from the building with their work.
As a copyist, Manet was particularly engrossed by the works of the Venetian Renaissance artist, Titian, whose ability to fabricate the vibrancy of color and fleeting light was so transformative that his contemporaries called him “the sun amidst small stars.” Titian was a genius at manipulating the tactile properties of oil paint. In some areas, he sealed the pores of the canvas with a lead white base and then upon it, built up layers and layers of paint suspended in oil (glazes) to which ground glass had been added; water glistened. In other areas, he applied paint in such a thin layer that the weave of the canvas shows through; textures surfaced. In another spots, paint was spread in thick, wet layers with stiff, hog bristles, which left the edges between colors soft and indistinct; sensuous flesh glowed from the walls of candlelit rooms. During Titian’s lifetime, paintings of nude mythological goddess and nymphs – a socially acceptable excuse for a patron to look at provocatively posed women – became predictably popular.
Probably Titian; The Pastoral Concert (Le Concert Champêtre), 1509-10; Oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre, Paris
At the center, two men sit in a shady glen; one plays a lute and his friend leans toward him and listens to the music. One nude female figure holds a wooden flute and the other is about to pour water into a stone well. But who are they? Why are they here? Why are the clothed men ignoring the nude female figures?
This type of painting, an idyllic landscape inhabited by gods and goddess, nymphs and satyrs, shepherds and peasants, remained popular well into Manet’s lifetime. Seen as the visual equivalent of poetry, “ut picture poesis” (“as is poetry so is painting”), they refer to a form of ancient Greek verse that romanticizes the idea of withdrawing from modern life to live closer to nature. A discerning viewer in the 1500s might imagine that as the shepherds sat in a field playing musical instruments, they were inspired by the Muses. The men sang with such beauty (often about lost loves or deceased comrades) that the woodland nymphs drew near to listen. The shepherds can’t see the Muses or nymphs but feel their presence in the beauty of music. To be a sophisticated art lover meant sensing the poetic beauty of music and verse in the painting’s visual qualities. Manet kept an ink drawing of Le Concert Champêtre in his studio.
He also owned a print of The Judgment of Paris. In the early 1500s, Raphael, one of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance, designed a set of compositions specifically for Marcantonio Raimondi to engrave. To achieve the richest possible tonal effects (how light or dark something is), Marcantonio pioneered a meticulous technique that influenced printmaking for centuries.
Paris was forced to choose which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. He chose Venus, seen receiving the golden apple. She then promised to help him woo the most beautiful woman alive, Helen of Troy, which unfortunately incited the Trojan War.
Although Manet revered the achievements of the Old Masters and came to understand their technical virtuosity, he had no interest in painting the same subject matter that had been around for hundreds of years.
“One must be of one’s time and paint what one sees,” said Manet.
Nadar; Édouard Manet, before 1870; Photograph
However, he also genuinely wanted the respect and recognition of the art academy and its elite members. Manet anticipated that his paintings would be accepted into the Salon, Europe’s most prestigious art exhibition, and that the hundreds of thousands of people who attended would forever associate his works with art history’s greatest European artists. First, however, his paintings had to be approved by its jury.
Henri Gervex; A Session of the Painting Jury, c. 1883; Oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris. In preparation of the Salon, the jury of academicians considered hundreds of paintings a day and raised canes or umbrellas to vote whether or not a particular artwork should be accepted. An attendant wrote “A” on the back of paintings for “admis” and “R” for “refusé.” The accepted works were then ranked. Those rated “1” were hung “on the line” – roughly at eye-level; “2”s were placed just above that, and so on. Unnumbered paintings were “skied” – hung just below the ceiling where they were difficult to see.
Manet submitted Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), an obvious nod to famous works by Titian, Rubens, and Marcantonio, for exhibition in the 1863 Salon. It was rejected.
The men wearing modern clothes aren’t shepherds.
Where’s the soft flesh of woodland nymphs? The woman in front looks like a starkly-lit cut-out.
Why are the men picnicking with prostitutes?
Are the distinguished men of the jury expected to allow a prostitute to stare at them? Does she look familiar?
Not only did the jury reject Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, they also rejected two-thirds of the other paintings that were submitted that year. So many artists complained that the Emperor, Napoléon III, ordered for the excluded works to be displayed in a special exhibition, Salon des Refusés, the ‘exhibition of rejects’.
More than one thousand visitors a day pushed into the packed galleries of the Salon des Refusés. There was laughter. There was outrage. There was a revolution in painting brewing.
Cham (Charles Amédée de Noé); published in Cham au Salon de 1863. “My son, remove your cap! Pay your respects to the failures.”
Manet continued to submit paintings to the Salon. When his interpretation of another work by Titian, a painting he copied while in Venice in 1857, was accepted by the jury, the critics and public were even more infuriated. Manet was baffled.
Titian; Venus of Urbino, 1538; Oil on canvas; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Titian’s curving, idealized, sensuous Venus, a paragon of art, had a tremendous influenced on the principles for representing a reclining nude female figure in Western art for hundreds of years.
The multiple thin layers of oil paint are blended so softly that the goddess’s sensuous skin glows.
While her servants search through her wedding chest in the background, she, the perfect Renaissance woman who, like Venus, is a symbol of love, beauty, fidelity, and fertility, coyly beckons her husband in fulfillment of her marital obligations.
No one doubted that Manet had studied Titian’s work carefully. The canvases were almost the same size and the propped pillows, ruby-red mattress, and dark-green wall hanging looked very familiar.
Manet; Olympia, 1863; Oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris
But the space around her appeared shallow, as if perspective had been flattened into two or three planes. The patchy brushwork looked unfinished.
Worst of all, was this a brothel in Paris? Her body emanated such sensuality that pregnant women were advised to avoid it. And whatever her look in her eyes is expressing, it’s far too bold. Viewers crowded in front of it and shouted in disgust. Guards were called in to protect it from the art students who were punching it and trying to tear the canvas until it could be relocated to a spot high above a doorway and out of reach.
When Manet’s Olympia debuted at the 1865 Salon, in the eyes of the viewer, the picture profanely affronted the Western traditions for portraying an allegorical or classical nude female that had been venerated for centuries. The elite members of the academy called it “vile,” “ugly,” “stupid,” “shameless,” a work that, “cries out for examination by the inspectors of public health.” Olympia challenged the accepted purpose of art, which was to glorify France and its history. With this succès de scandale, Manet became the leader of the avant-garde.
Daumier; Avant le Peinture; in Charivari, 1865 (“Why the devil is that big red woman in chemise called Olympia?” “Perhaps it’s the name of the cat?”)
After Manet’s death, the painter Claude Monet organized a fund to purchase Olympia and offered it to the French State; forty-four years after the scandal, it was installed in Louvre. Today it’s in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris and is considered to be the first modern painting.
Manet persisted. After serving in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and witnessing the siege of Paris, he remained devoted to the Salon and its position in the art world and resumed traveling to museums to engage with the Old Masters.
I am influenced by everybody. Every time I put my hands in my pockets I find someone else’s fingers there. – Manet
Frans Hals, the leading portraitist in Haarlem during the 1600s, is best known for his intimate, animated portraits of the city’s citizens from every social level, whether they made their fortunes from brewing beer and producing luxury fabrics or were the poorest local fisherfolk. Partly due to a biography written by about him in the early 1700s, Hals was dismissed as a flagrant drunk whose loose brushstrokes were a reflection of his licentious lifestyle. However, in the 1860s, he was rediscovered by an influential French art critic while visiting Haarlem who also dismissed the biography as slander. After the war, Manet visited the Stedelijk Museum in Haarlem and painted a handkerchief-sized copy of Frans Hals’s Regentesses while on-site.
Left: Frans Hals; The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, 1664; Oil on canvas; Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem and Right: Èdouard Manet; Copy of Frans Hals’s Regentesses, 1872
Compared to the static poses of traditional portraiture at the time, Hals’s subjects look more personal and natural.
Left: Artist/maker unknown, Dutch; Portrait of a Lady, c. 1650-1700; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art and Right: Frans Hals; Portrait of a Woman, c. 1650; Oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Hals’s technique was rougher, sketchier, and looser than that of his contemporaries. Look how the light that spans across the face is formed with unblended brushstrokes and areas of color, as if carelessly applied, almost impressionistic.
Frans Hals; Portrait of a Man, c. 1660; oil on canvas; Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris
“For the sitter’s left cheek, for example, he applied a pinkish flesh tone atop a red ground without smoothing out the perimeter of the bristles’ reach and crowned the crest of the cheekbone with a dab of pure white. Elsewhere, Hals ran a single arc of umber upward from the tail of the mustache to the edge of the nostril carving a furrowed shadow to create volume and distinguish the features of the face. He crafted the nose and forehead from similar juxtaposed swaths of unblended tones.” (Atkins)
You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas, and to concentrate all the interest on this single and universal figure and still keep it living and real. – Manet
After returning from Haarlem, inspired by the Dutch master, Manet painted a portrait of a gentleman who has settled down to enjoy his bock, a spring beer.
Édouard Manet; Le Bon Bock, 1873; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art
When you look into one of the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and catch a glimpse of Manet’s corpulent beer drinker, the directness of his eyes draws you toward him. Not that you need to rush over. Only a small bit of the chair under his right arm is visible and yet you know that he’s settled comfortably. He’s not going anywhere until he finishes his beer and there’s a good chance that he’ll order another. He’s clamped the stem of the clay pipe between his lips and teeth and adjusted his fingers to avoid touching its hot bowl. The rising trail of smoke is the only sign of movement.
Manet focuses our attention on his face. Every brushstroke and swath of color – the sandy pink and ecru patches on his forehead and under his eyebrows, the slightly watery eyes that catch the light, the flushed and fleshy ruddy pink cheeks, and the brisk whiskery strokes – have been carefully placed to give the impression that he’s alive in this space and has paused in the indefinitely present moment.
Notice how Manet’s uses tones (intensities) of black as a color and not just as a tone itself (adding greys, since it only consists of white and black, to “tone down” a color so it’s perceived as colder, duller, or murky; a neutral mixture of grey, no matter how light or dark, will tone down the intensity of any color). This wasn’t new in the history of art but it was quite different from how Manet’s contemporaries were thinking about it.
The black of fabric absorbs light and redistributes it according to its texture. Manet’s brushwork and varied black tones can make a painted fabric on canvas seem matte or shiny, flat or puckered, fresh or stained, new or threadbare. A dash of white shows the strain of the top button on his vest.
The effects of black guide the eye over the surface, suggest three-dimensional form, and, paradoxically, imply light.
Note the color palette and brushstrokes Manet used to suggest light passing through the solid glass and liquid beer and then to also depict a range of reflections.
Manet is stronger than us. He made light with black. – Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro
Manet’s model, a printmaker and neighbor named Emile Bellot, endured more than sixty sittings, each time posing as if he were not posing.
Le Bon Bock was exhibited at the 1873 Paris Salon and won an “honorable mention”. People presumed that the subject was a patriot from the French Alsace region, a leading center of beer making, drinking his regional beer. The area had just been recently lost to Germany during the Franco-Prussian War.
G. Darre; Édouard Manet, Le Bon Bock; Caricature in “Le Carillon”, July 6, 1881
This, in turn, inspired Bellot to organize the Bon Bock Society in 1875. For nearly fifty years, the boisterous group hosted monthly dinners in and around Montmartre for its membership, which consisted mostly of artists, writers, satirists, and performers.
If the gentlemen in Le Bon Bock appears slightly intoxicated, can we assume it’s due solely to the beer? He’s only had a few sips, unless this isn’t his first round. Could there be something else that’s affected him? Perhaps it’s the sound of a gypsy melody that wafts alluringly through the museum corridors.
– Meighan Maley
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day. – George Carlin
Top Image: Édouard Manet; Self-Portrait, 1878-79; Oil on canvas; Private Collection
Academic Art; VisualArtsCork.com
Atkins, Christopher D.M. “A Liveliness Uniquely His.” In The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity. Amsterdam University Press, 2012.
Faces of Power and Piety: Portraiture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; Getty.edu/art
Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man; Musée Jacquemart-André
Imbert, Claude, et al. “Manet, Effects of Black.” Paragraph, vol. 34, no. 2, 2011, pp. 187–198
Manet; Copy of Frans Hals’s Regentesses; TheTranslationSalon.com
Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael’s The Judgment of Paris; Metmuseum.org
Master Class (Copyists at the Louvre); Smithsonianmag.com
Morrison, Paula. “Medieval Portraiture: Identity as Symbol in Medieval Sacred Art.” 2011. RepositoryLibraryGeorgetown.edu/
Painting Techniques and Style of Édouard Manet; Liveabout.com
Portrait Art; VisualArtsCork.com
Rediscovering Hals; FransHalsMuseum.nl/en
Rich, Daniel Catton. “The Spanish Background for Manet’s Early Work.” Parnassus, vol. 4, no. 2, 1932, pp. 1–5.