Manet Portraying Life: Exhibition on Screen

Edouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil," 1874

This is my new favorite work of art by Manet: The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil (1874). On one hand, it reminds me a bit of my own little family and home: my currently-bearded husband, my little boy, my flower garden, my yard. Plus, when learning more about this painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I grew to like Manet even more than I already do. In 1924, Monet wrote about his experience of sitting in his garden for this very portrait:

“Manet, enthralled by the color and the light, undertook an outdoor painting of figures under trees. During the sitting, Renoir arrived. . . . He asked me for palette, brush and canvas, and there he was, painting away alongside Manet. The latter was watching him out of the corner of his eye. . . . Then he made a face, passed discreetly near me, and whispered in my ear about Renoir: ‘He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!'”

I don’t really care for Renoir’s art, and it turns out that Manet felt the same way. I have a feeling that Manet and I would have gotten along!

Yesterday I was introduced to Manet’s portrait of the Monet family through a film screening of the exhibition, Manet Portraying Life. This show is currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This film screening was informative and entertaining. I especially liked the analysis of the paintings given by various individuals who were invited onto the set, including curators, artists and even an actress, Fiona Shaw. The host Tim Marlow and Shaw had a really interesting conversation; they discussed how Manet’s The Railway (shown below) seems to include an interesting pattern – almost a barrier – created by the iron bars. These bars seem to separate these delicate females (and the viewer) from the industrial world of the railway. Even the smoke coming from the railway area seems to add an element of mystery (or perhaps inaccessibility) to modern life.

Manet, "The Railway," 1873

There were several little snippets of information that I learned during this film screening. Here were a few other short points that stood out to me:

  • Matisse used to show people Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) in order to prove that black could be used without making it seem like a “hole” in the canvas. (This negative attitude toward black, especially during Matisse’s career, must have its origins in the late 19th century after the rise of Impressionism.)
  • One of the interviewees mentioned that Salon paintings in the 19th century were hung in rooms according to the name of the artist. From what I understand, artists with last names that began with the same letter would have been grouped together. This practical method of hanging is very interesting to me, especially since earlier museums chose to hang their paintings in either a chronological and/or a thematic fashion. (See more information about the Salon hanging method in the comments below.)
  • Manet felt that Velasquez was the greater painter of all time.
  • Carte-de-visite photographs may have influenced Manet’s work; these comparatively cheap photographs were left as little tokens or remembrances when an individual visited friends or family in the 19th century. Manet may have looked to some carte-de-visites when working on specific portraits.  This information made me wonder if the monochromatic tan background or sepia-like tones of photographs might have directly or indirectly influenced the backgrounds Manet used for several of his portraits (for example, as seen in his Portrait of Berthe Morisot from 1872).

Manet, "Music in the Tuileries Gardens," 1862

I also enjoyed that the film included some of the background information about Manet’s life and/or the history behind the paintings themselves. I appreciated a discussion of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” idea in conjunction with Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The film host emphasized that Manet is shown as a flâneur in this painting: he is depicted in the left corner, an observer of modern life who is separated from the crowd. Another commentator in the film also jokingly noted that Manet has decided to depict different prominent critics and writers in the painting: those who might have written and commented on Manet’s art found themselves within the crowd!

I also learned that this painting alternates between spending six years in the National Gallery in London, and then six years in The Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. This arrangement is due to a bequest that was contested: when Hugh Lane suddenly died in 1915, his official will stipulated that the painting would go to the National Gallery, but an unofficial addendum to the will (found in his desk) said that the paintings should be in Dublin. The six-year arrangement is a balance between following the legal will and honoring the wishes of the deceased donor.

I was hoping that the film camera would move through the different galleries so one could get a feel for the hanging and the layout of the exhibition space, but that didn’t really happen too much. Instead, the film mostly examined isolated works of art. Only some of the paintings in the show were discussed or even shown, which has led me to look for additional information and interviews about the show elsewhere online. That being said, I still really enjoyed the film; I hope to attend the future screenings this year (on exhibitions about Munch and Vermeer).

Did anyone else go to this film screening or see this exhibition (either at the Royal Academy of Arts or at the Toledo Museum of Art)? What were your thoughts?

  • heidenkind says:

    I didn’t, but I heard about it and am very intrigued by the idea. I actually like Renoir (it seems as though everyone has that one Impressionist they think is the visual equivalent to white noise and mine is… Monet!), but Manet is definitely one of my art historical crushes. Love him. 🙂

  • Anne says:

    I saw the exhibition last month in London. It was packed with people and, though I’m very glad to have seen it, the sheer pressure of numbers was an issue. Many of the paintings are stunning, I especially liked the portraits of Berthe Morisot and the works for which Victorine Meurent modelled. There are a number of unfinished works and it is interesting to see these because they do show something of his process, others were unfinished at the time of his death and were later completed by “other hands” and I am not certain what was achieved by including them.

    The influence of Velazquez struck me immediately. It is very clear if you have been to the Prado. Velazquez, when he was not being the court painter, liked to paint contemporary figures, including actors and entertainers, and, certainly early in his career, scenes of street life, his bodegones. His work is explicitly referenced in a number of the paintings included in the exhibition. For example, The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) is surely Manet’s version of Velazquez’s Pablo de Valladolid,
    another actor. To take up another point in your post, I think too that Manet’s handling of the colour black owes quite a bit to Velazquez.ère_as_Hamlet).JPG,_by_Diego_Velázquez.jpg.

  • Francois Poirier says:

    This what the French novelist and critic Emile Zola wrote in 1880 :

    “Cette année, l’ouverture du Salon a remué singulièrement le monde des artistes (…). Le sous-secrétaire d’État aux Beaux-Arts, M. Turquet, aidé de ses employés, a eu l’ambition d’attacher son nom à des réformes. C’est là un trait caractéristique ; tout nouvel administrateur qui croit tenir entre les mains la gloire artistique de la France, se trouve pris d’une fureur de zèle extraordinaire. Il rêve aussitôt de nous doter de grands hommes et il a l’étrange espoir d’en fabriquer, en prenant mesure sur mesure. Donc, M. Turquet est venu à son tour modifier le règlement du Salon. Il s’est surtout attaqué au classement des oeuvres exposées ; avant lui, on accrochait les tableaux dans l’enfilade des salles, en se contentant de suivre l’ordre alphabétique ; lui, homme d’ordre, a créé quatre catégories : les artistes hors concours, les artistes qui sont de droit exemptés de l’examen du jury, les artistes qui n’en sont pas exemptés, et enfin les artistes étrangers. Au premier abord, cela semble innocent ; il y a même là quatre groupes logiquement établis, et la mesure paraît excellente. Eh bien ! on ne peut s’imaginer le bouleversement que le classement de M. Turquet a produit. Personne n’est content, tous les peintres crient, les ateliers sont en révolution.”

    source :

  • Hels says:

    It makes perfect sense that Manet would feel that Velasquez was the greater painter of all time. And it is possible to find Velasquez’s footprints over a number of Manet’s important paintings. But the question remains. Why is Manet considered the first modernist so often? Could an artist look back to Velasquez (and others) and be a modernist at the same time

    And here I was thinking I was the only person not besotted with Claude Monet! Thanks for the link
    Manet, portraits and the good life in Paris

  • Hello François! Thank you (merci!) for this quote by Zola. It is exactly the information I hoped to find. I’m also very glad to know that there was a switch to the layout of the Salon exhibition in 1880 (moving from alphabetical order to different categories of artists). That is very interesting.

    For those who read this blog that do not speak/read French, this is a rough translation of the Zola quote from Google Translate:

    “This year, the exhibition opens strangely stirred the artistic world (…). Undersecretary of State for Fine Arts, Mr. Turquet, assisted by his staff, had the ambition of attaching his name to the reforms. This is a feature, a new director who believes hold hands the artistic glory of France, finds himself caught in a frenzy of extraordinary zeal. He dreams soon give us great men and a strange hope of making, taking measure to measure. So Mr. Turquet came in turn change the rules of the show. He especially attacked the classification of works exhibited; before him, we hung the paintings in the series of rooms, by simply following the alphabetical order. Him a man of order, [Turquet] created four categories: standout artists, artists who are exempt from the right jury’s consideration, the artists who are not exempt, and finally foreign artists. At first it seems innocent and there are even four logically established there, and the measure appears excellent. Well! we can not imagine the upheaval that the classification of M. Turquet produced. Nobody is happy, all the painters shout, workshops are in revolution…”

  • Hi Anne! Thanks for sharing your take on the exhibition! I did not know that the show included paintings that were completed after Manet’s death; they were not mentioned in the exhibition film at all! The film also didn’t really discuss the portraits of Berthe Morisot, which was disappointing to me.

    I did, however, like that the film highlighted this same comparison that you mentioned between Velasquez and Manet. Thanks for including the links to those images! I noticed during the film that Velasquez used as monochromatic background for his portrait of Pablo de Valladolid. If Manet was influenced by the blank/monochromatic backgrounds found in many carte-de-visite photographs, he also could have found similar inspiration in the works of 17th century painters like Velasquez.

  • Hi Hels! You raise a great point about Velasquez and modernism. I think Clement Greenberg would argue that Manet is “the first modernist” because he breaks up the perspectival space and illusionism in his works of art, especially in paintings like “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” But I do think that Velasquez has a painterly quality which “celebrates” the surface of the canvas, something that Greenberg would have liked.

    However, I do think that the topic of “the first modernist” is up for debate. In the early 20th century, there was a collector in Washington DC, Duncan Phillips, who felt like El Greco was the first modernist. Phillips acquired El Greco’s “The Repentant Saint Peter” for his modern art collection; he felt that El Greco began to experiment with abstraction and color in a way that anticipated the art of later centuries.

  • Hi heidenkind! If there is one crush to have out of the whole 19th century, I think Manet is a good one to choose! It’s so tragic that he died at only 51. One can only imagine how he might have changed the art world even further, had he lived longer.

    In the film, some people commented on how Manet’s death prevented him from observing the extent of how much modernism and industrialization would change society. His paintings are quite early observations of the changes in the Paris. I’m sure he would have been interested to know what took place in the decades after his death…

  • Anne says:

    The Portrait of M. Arnaud was definitely identified in the accompanying caption as having been finished by another hand after his death. I did think that this applied to at least one other but I can’t be sure now which it might have been.

    I have just come across this review which relates to the issue of finished and unfinished paintings in the exhibition.

    Three of the Manet events / lectures are available as podcasts

  • Hi Anne! Thanks for these links. I had a colleague mention that he read some negative reviews of the show, which makes me wonder if he came across this review that you mentioned. I can see why people would be disappointed at seeing unfinished works (or works finished by a different artist).

    Thanks for the link to the podcast lectures; I’m excited to listen to these. Cheers!

  • Netta says:

    Dear Monica:
    I am an artist, I have a series of work “When the World
    was Black-and-White” –
    As an artist I have to admit that painting in black is difficulte. It’s the darkest color – the shading is impossible, you can only use the lighter color to create illusion of the object being three-dementional.
    Olso I am an art historian and I write works on the subject of Fine art.
    I am sure that you will enjoy the reading.

  • Hello Subject-Art: Thank you for your comment and the links! I am not a painter, but I imagine that painting with black is very difficult.

  • But will art exhibits work at the movies? Unlike new opera and theater performances, just about every piece of art from current exhibitions can already be viewed over the Internet. And the exhibits will be a documentary film, not a live event.

  • Hi Hazel! I think you have brought up a good point. The film was a bit more like a documentary, since there was quite a bit of background information about Manet and his life. I suppose one of the benefits was that the painting details were blown up onto a huge cinematic screen, instead of just a small computer or tablet screen. It was quite exhilarating to see larger-than-life-size details of impasto!

  • Mark White says:

    Hi. I think Hazel and Anne raise a couple of very interesting points.

    I was lucky enough to see the show in London but as I too was intrigued as to how it would on the big screen, I also went along to the cinema to see what I thought was an excellent film.

    The film’s director Phil Grabsky acknowledged in an interview on BBC Radio 4 that there is nothing better than seeing the art in real life, and that the film’s intention was to be a ‘next best thing’ for the many people who would not be able to attend an exhibition in London or Ohio.

    In this regard – as a ‘next best thing’ – I think the film succeeded within the limitations of the format, which cannot deliver a comparable experience to attending in person (unlike in the live relay of theatre where I have sometimes felt I was getting a better experience than the audience at the National Theatre).

    But what are we to do if (as in mine and Anne’s experience) the gallery is so overcrowded that even attending the exhibition in person becomes a compromised way to view the work – another ‘next best thing’? If the Royal Academy cannot provide something closer to the ‘best’ way to view the art it displays surely something is going seriously wrong?

    I strongly feel that galleries need to address the issue of overcrowding – and such cinema screenings are not the answer. Exhibitions either need to sell fewer tickets or, for example, open through the night. When they are promoting a show as once in a lifetime experience, surely they have a responsiblity to both the paintings and the visitors to be allowed to spend more than a few seconds in each other’s company before the crowd shuffles them on?

  • Hi Mark! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that the issue of overcrowding should be addressed, and cinema screenings are not the right way to solve this problem. Perhaps ticket prices should also go up on certain days, in order to encourage people to visit shows during the week (or before the closing weekend?). It’s ironic how museums are compelled to hold these “blockbuster exhibitions” in order to attract crowds, but such large crowds can ruin a visitor’s ability to truly experience the art on display. Is art the highest thing that is valued in an art museum? I would hope so!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.