was a French painter who came to prominence in the 1860's and 70's. His work was controversial but highly inspirational to other artists at the time and was an important part of the transition from the Realism
Born to an upper class family in Paris in 1832, Manet was expected to pursue a distinguished career such as the law or navy but chose to study art instead. He often visited the Louvre
to study the work of the masters before him. Manet's early work fit well into the Realist movement, which had begun in the 1950's and remained popular. One of his first paintings to be accepted into The Salon
was The Spanish Singer
, which attracted attention from critics and artists. It demonstrates his preference for loose brushwork over meticulous illusionistic realism as well as his interest in portraying street performers and "common people". This subject matter was characteristic of the Realist movement, which was focused on portraying real people in real situations.
was a biannual art exhibition held in the Louvre Palace in Paris. It was the most important venue for artists and was considered a necessary threshold to cross in order for an artist to be accepted as a success. It was at the time the gate-keeper to the world of professional art, but it was also a conservative platform that resisted progress. One of Manet's most famous works acquired notoriety when refused from the Salon due to its controversial subject matter.
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
(Luncheon in the Grass
) may appear very traditional to modern viewers - an elegantly painted image of a nude woman reclining in a serene landscape - but it was ground-breaking at the time. The Realists enjoyed depicting the reality of their culture, but here Manet pushed that concept further than most art appreciators felt comfortable with. In this piece we see a common prostitute*
sitting in a park while her customers chat beside her. She's seated in a position that is probably comfortable for her but appears awkward and unappealing to us. The fact that her companions are fully clothed emphasizes her nakedness and how out of place it is. Her clients are well-dressed, presumably educated members of the upper class, men who would be expected to have a higher understanding of morality than to purchase sexual pleasure. And possibly the most offensive feature is the woman's complete lack of shame. She gazes back at us, unabashed, with an almost Mona Lisa-esque expression - a wry smile of amusement.
Manet's painting obviously broke with tradition in terms of subject matter but in style and technique as well. His brush strokes are broad and clearly visible, the lighting on the woman's shape flattens the form and has a photographic over-exposed quality, the perspective of the figure bathing in the background seems purposefully off, and the seated woman is looking directly at the viewer, acknowledging our presence as we observe the image. This painting is as unashamed of its nature as the woman in it. It's not pretending to be a window into another world, an illusion of another reality. It's almost self-aware, a painting that knows its a painting and makes no attempt to hide it.
His next painting, Olympia
, was controversial for many of the same reasons. Here we have another prostitute reclining nude, and again she looks directly at the viewer with confidence (though perhaps less interest). This piece is perhaps more confrontational because Manet employed a composition often used in paintings depicting the goddess of love in Roman mythology - Venus - and replaced her with a courtesan. The piece is both an homage to and a critique of classical European paintings that present idealized mythological scenes that are safely distant from the real world. By presenting a real life goddess of sexuality in her place (with an apt name like Olympia which references ancient Greece and was a common name for prostitutes in Paris), Manet makes a comment on how differently a sexual and independent woman is perceived when she is real versus when she is a fictional character from Roman mythology.
Manet's work produced an uproar by art critics and the general public alike for its scandalous nature, but it also inspired other artists to push forward and try new things. Manet became friends with many members of the Impressionists movement, whom he influenced and influenced him in turn. But he did not exhibit with the Impressionists or consider himself an actual member of the group. Even though the Salon was resistant to progressive work such as his, Manet maintained his faith in the Salon as a staple of the contemporary art world. His last major work, Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère), was completed in 1882 and hung in the Salon the same year.