New Edouard Manet show reveals insights into his portraiture and the world of 19th century Paris

by Jeremy Miles

A unique insight into the work of one of the most radical painters of  the 19th century and the creative circles of Parisian society in which he moved is offered in Manet: Portraying Life, the first major UK exhibition to showcase Edouard Manet’s portraiture.

Edouard Manet: The Railway, 1873The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Edouard Manet: The Railway, 1873
The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The show,  which highlights Manet’s portraiture, opens at London’s Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday (Jan 26. It examines the relationship between his portrait painting and his scenes of modern life and is already set to break records.  By casting his sitters as actors in his genre scenes, Manet guaranteed the authenticity of the figures that populate his paintings and asserted a new, more potent relationship between Realism and Modernity.

Manet: Portraying Life includes over 50 paintings spanning the career of this archetypal modern artist together with a selection of pastels and contemporary photographs. It brings together works from both public and private collections across Europe, Asia and the USA.

Highlights will include The Luncheon, 1868; Manet in the Conservatory,1879; Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets,1872;  Street Singer, c.1862; Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c.1863-68; The Railway, 1873 and Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862.

Born in Paris in 1832, the son of a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, and the daughter of a diplomat, Manet  spent a  year in the merchant marine before returning to  Paris in 1849 and training as a painter. He developed a love and fascination with contemporary art through the  Paris Salon and various independent exhibitions. Manet’s independence of style, individuality of subject matter and seemingly non-conventional technique meant that his exhibition career was fraught with rejection and on-going negative critical response.

Manet has been called the Father of modern art and even the Godfather of impressionism. However, despite supporting the Impressionists, and observing closely their own innovative approach to subject matter and technique, he resolutely refused to exhibit with them. Throughout his life, Manet surrounded himself with a wide circle of friends, admirers and supporters from the artistic, literary and musical communities – all of whom professed leanings towards the more radical movements of the day; they defended his art and served as sitters for his portraits.

His enduring fame and influence belies the fact that his career as a professional artist lasted less than three decades, cut short by his premature death in 1883 at the age of 51. Pallbearers at his funeral  included Claude Monet and Emile Zola.
Manet: Portraying Life arrives at the RA fresh from the Toledo Museum of Arts in Ohio. It will be on show in London until 14 April 2013

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