The French artist Édouard Manet is often credited with bridging the gap between two of the most important art movements of the 19th century, Realism and Impressionism. Though he once wrote that he had “no intention of overthrowing old methods of paintings, or creating, new ones,” his radical innovations in color composition and narrative did exactly that. He famously rejected the conservative sensibilities of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the organization responsible for Paris’s most prestigious Salons, by largely forgoing religious or allegorical subjects in favor of depictions of bourgeois life—which, at the time, was jarring for many. To the shock and scandal of the Academy (not to mention the public), he painted life-size tableaux of barmaids, courtesans, and bullfights, earning the veneration of avant-garde artists who would later be known as Impressionists. (Manet never identified with their movement, however.)
Manet was born into an upper-class family that envisioned for him a life of military service or law—his father was an official in the French Ministry of Justice, his mother, the goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince. To their disappointment, Manet failed the training entrance exam twice as a teenager, and was finally allowed to enroll in art school in Paris. There, he sketched artworks in the Louvre (where he met Edgar Degas), finding inspiration in Gustave Courbet’s rejection of Romanticism and Diego Velázquez’s baroque colors.
Unfortunately it took most of his life for his own paintings to achieve critical or financial success; he died on April 30, 1883, one year after his painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère debuted to mixed reviews at the Salon. “They are raining insults on me. Someone must be wrong,” the artist once wrote in a letter to his friend, French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire who, with writer Émile Zola, was among Manet’s most ardent champions. Manet would be heartened to know that today his paintings sell upward of $65 million. Below, a guide to some of the most famous works by one of the fathers of European modernism.
Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass debuted at the Salon des Refusés, an exhibition of works that had been rejected from the official Paris Salon by the conservative panel of judges. A scandal ensued, inspiring outrage and laughter from the crowds who flooded the Palais des Champs-Elyées to see the painting. It wasn’t the nudity of the model that was subversive—Manet had drawn heavily on Titian’s beloved The Pastoral Concert, from 1509—but her placement in a mundane setting beside clothed men. The composition was interpreted as a reference to the widespread but little acknowledged sex work that took place in French parks. Modern audiences can only assume Manet meant to be subversive, as he wrote in a letter to writer Antonin Proust in 1862, “So, they’d prefer me to do a nude, would they? Fine I’ll do them a nude…. Then I suppose they’ll really tear me to pieces.”
Manet’s Olympia was accepted by the Salon of 1865, where it provoked harsh criticism. The painting features a nude woman (the same model as Luncheon, Victorine Meurent) splayed across a bed while a servant attends to her. Using Titian’s Venus of Urbino as a reference, Manet painted a number of details which signified the woman as a sex worker: the decorative slippers, the orchid tucked behind her ear, her bracelet and pearls, and the proffered bouquet, which can be interpreted as a gift from her patron. A black cat slinks along the bed’s edge. Manet again eschews the Renaissance tradition of smooth blending in favor of quick brushstrokes and harsh lighting, which further humanizes the subject. The painting was deemed offensive on its debut, though his friend Monet eventually convinced curators to display it at the Musée du Luxembourg. (It is now owned by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.) More recently, curators such as Denise Murrell have relied on the painting to consider how race was represented by 19th-century European artists.
Manet visited Spain in 1865, and though the trip last only a bit longer than a week, it left a profound impression on the painter, who had long been impressed by 17th-century Spanish art. Lively scenes of Spanish life began to appear in his paintings, including a series about bullfighting, which he described to his friend Baudelaire as “one of the finest, most curious and most terrifying sights to be seen.” In Bullfight he depicts the taut moment before the action, as the bull and torero face off. Beside them, a gored horse lies prostrate. When matched with the bold strokes that comprise the hungry crowd, Manet creates a palpable tension—the stillness preceding the frenzy.
It was fashionable to paint scenes of bourgeois life, but The Balcony defied conventions with its enigmatic narrative and unusual perspective. Berthe Morisot, a fellow Impressionist and close friend of Manet, is seated in the foreground. Behind her is the painter Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet, while on the right is violinist Fanny Claus. Semi-shrouded in the background is another, unidentified male figure. The Balcony was not well received upon showing at the 1869 Salon, as the picture was considered formally off-putting. A critic wrote, “Manet has lowered himself to the point of being in competition with the painters of the building trade,” while another remarked, “Close the shutters!” Manet refused to sell the painting during his lifetime. After his death in 1883, it was bought by the Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte, who bequeathed the painting to the French government in 1894.
Émile Zola, renowned French critic and novelist, was an early fan of the Impressionists and Manet, who he considered especially unheralded (“The future is his,” Zola wrote after seeing The Luncheon on the Grass). In 1866, he wrote a flattering review of Manet, and again defended him the following year at an independent exhibition Manet organized outside the Exposition Universelle. In thanks, Manet offered to paint Zola. The portrait is populated with objects representative of Zola’s profession and personality, such as a journals, an inkwell, and quills. Manet even painted a small version of Olympia, which the writer regarded as Manet’s masterwork, on the wall behind Zola. Also hanging on Zola’s wall is an engraving from Velázquez, who Manet considered “the greatest painter there ever was.”
Manet began to widen his color palette after being influenced by the Impressionists’ pastel landscapes, but he never totally abandoned his affinity for black, illustrated here in his portrait of his close friend, the Impressionist Berthe Morisot. In a way unlike that of his other paintings, which are largely painted in uniform light, Manet chose to illuminate only half of Morisot’s face here, creating a dramatic interplay of light and shadow. She holds a bouquet of violets that blend into the dark fold of her dress. Manet’s circle considered the work a masterpiece, and French writer Paul Valéry wrote in his foreword to the catalogue of Manet’s 1932 retrospective at Musée de l’Orangerie, “I do not rank anything in Manet’s work higher than a certain portrait of Berthe Morisot dated 1872.”
This large-scale painting was the last major work Manet completed before his death in 1883, and it debuted at the 1882 Paris Salon. Viewers have attempted ever since to solve the puzzle of its composition, as the barmaid stares before a mirrored wall that does not reflect her viewer—as reality would demand—but the boisterous crowds. And against all logic, the reflection of the barmaid and a gentleman she confers with are displaced to the right. The Folies-Bergère was a well-known venue in Paris, drawing acts that would then be considered indecent, such as circus performers and ballerinas. Modern scholars have also supposed that its barmaids doubled as sex workers. Of his paintings, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is perhaps most representative of Manet’s innovations, relying on commonplace imagery to offer complicated formal experiments.