Jan 232014


Today is the birthday (1832) of Édouard Manet, French painter, one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life, and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. His early masterworks, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe  (Luncheon on the Grass), and Olympia, both 1863, caused great controversy and served as rallying points for the young painters who would be the prime movers in the  Impressionist movement. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the genesis of modern art.

Manet was born in Paris in the ancestral hôtel particulier on the rue Bonaparte to an affluent and well-connected family. His mother, Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, was the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince Charles Bernadotte, from whom the Swedish monarchs are descended. His father, Auguste Manet, was a French judge who expected Édouard to pursue a career in law. His uncle, Edmond Fournier, encouraged him to pursue painting and took young Manet to the Louvre. In 1841 he enrolled at secondary school, the Collège Rollin. In 1845, at the advice of his uncle, Manet enrolled in a special course of drawing where he met Antonin Proust, future Minister of Fine Arts and subsequent lifelong friend.

At his father’s suggestion, in 1848 he sailed on a training vessel to Rio de Janeiro. After he twice failed the examination to join the Navy, his father acceded to his wishes to pursue an art education. From 1850 to 1856, Manet studied under the academic painter Thomas Couture. In his spare time, Manet copied the old masters in the Louvre. From 1853 to 1856 he visited Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, during which time he was influenced by the Dutch painter Frans Hals, and the Spanish artists Diego Velázquez and Francisco José de Goya.


In 1856, Manet opened a studio. His style in this period was characterized by loose brush strokes, simplification of details and the suppression of transitional tones. Adopting the current style of realism initiated by Gustave Courbet, he painted The Absinthe Drinker (1858–59) and other contemporary subjects such as beggars, singers, gypsies, people in cafés, and bullfights. Manet had two canvases accepted at the Salon in 1861. A portrait of his mother and father, who at the time was paralyzed and robbed of speech by a stroke, was ill received by critics.


The other, The Spanish Singer, was admired by Theophile Gautier, and placed in a more conspicuous location as a result of its popularity with Salon-goers. (Curiously, I had not noticed until I started writing this that the singer is playing the guitar left handed.)


A pivotal early work is Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. The Paris Salon rejected it for exhibition in 1863 but Manet exhibited it at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) later in the year. Emperor Napoleon III had initiated The Salon des Refusés after the Paris Salon rejected more than 4,000 paintings in 1863. Manet employed model Victorine Meurent, his wife Suzanne, future brother-in-law Ferdinand Leenhoff, and one of his brothers to pose. Meurent also posed for several more of Manet’s important paintings including Olympia; and by the mid-1870s she had become an accomplished painter in her own right.

The painting’s juxtaposition of fully dressed men and a nude woman was controversial, as was its abbreviated, sketch-like handling, an innovation that distinguished Manet from Courbet. At the same time, Manet’s composition reveals his study of the old masters, as the disposition of the main figures is derived from Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of the Judgment of Paris (c. 1515) based on a drawing by Raphael (lower right group).


As he had in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Manet again played off a respected work by a Renaissance artist in the painting Olympia (1863), a nude portrayed in a style reminiscent of early studio photographs, but whose pose was based on Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538).


Manet started the work after being challenged to give the Salon a nude painting to display. His uniquely frank depiction of a self-assured prostitute was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1865, where it created a scandal. According to Antonin Proust, “only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn” by offended viewers. The painting was controversial partly because the nude is wearing some small items of clothing such as an orchid in her hair, a bracelet, a ribbon around her neck, and mule slippers, all of which accentuated her nakedness, sexuality, and comfortable courtesan lifestyle. The orchid, upswept hair, black cat, and bouquet of flowers were all recognized symbols of sexuality at the time. This modern Venus’ body is thin, counter to prevailing standards; the painting’s lack of idealism rankled viewers. Olympia’s body, as well as her gaze, is unabashedly confrontational. She defiantly looks out as her servant offers flowers from one of her male suitors. Although her hand rests on her leg, hiding her pubic area, the reference to traditional female virtue is ironic; a notion of modesty is notoriously absent in this work. A contemporary critic denounced Olympia’s “shamelessly flexed” left hand, which seemed to him a mockery of the relaxed, shielding hand of Titian’s Venus. Likewise, the alert black cat at the foot of the bed strikes a sexually rebellious note in contrast to that of the sleeping dog in Titian’s portrayal of the goddess in his Venus of Urbino.


Rather than go into a long song and dance concerning Manet’s illustrious oeuvre let me give you a gallery of a few images. The underlying theme in all these works is a portrayal of the modern world in general, including lighter subjects but not shying away from political activity and warfare.

manet14 manet13 manet12 manet11 manet10 manet15

He completed painting his last major work, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, in 1882 and it hung in the Salon that year.


In 1881, with pressure from his friend Antonin Proust, the French government awarded Manet the Légion d’honneur.

In his forties Manet contracted syphilis, for which he received no treatment. He also suffered from rheumatism. In the years before his death, he developed locomotor ataxia, a known side-effect of syphilis, which caused him considerable pain. In April 1883, his left foot was amputated because of gangrene, and he died eleven days later in Paris. He is buried in the Passy Cemetery in the city.

In honor of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, I suggest a French pique-nique (I was surprised to learn that the English “picnic” is derived from the French, and not the other way around).  Manet’s painting gives us only the rudiments – bread, grapes, and fruit, but it’s easy to flesh out. (Presumably they had already eaten the rest.)


A classic French picnic of the 19th century would also have had some cheese, some cured meats, and pâté; perhaps also some vegetables, certainly cornichons (baby pickled cucumbers).   Here’s my choice menu:

Slices of Savoie ham
Slices of Rosette de Lyon – pork sausage
Le Bleuet – a blue goat cheese from La Vernelle in the Berry region
Pont l’Eveque – somewhat resembling Camembert but more pungent.
Truffled Duck Pâté (recipe below)
Poached young vegetables with an aioli (garlic mayonnaise)
Domfrontais pears
Muscat grapes from Provence
French bread

I might have to take out a second mortgage to afford it, but one needs to dream a little.  Here is a splendid recipe for the duck pâté from Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World.  Just two small notes. Cox’s Orange Pippin is a smallish flavorful apple. Madeira aspic is made by dissolving gelatin in warm water and then adding an equal quantity of Madeira to the water, and letting it set.

Truffled Duck Pâté

1 medium sized duck
2 shallots chopped
pinch of thyme
4 bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1 fl ozs dry white wine
1 lb calf’s liver, diced
6 tbsps butter
4 cox’s orange pippins
1 tsp sugar
juice of ½ lemon
1 egg beaten
½ lb fat salt pork, thinly sliced
Madeira aspic

Bone and skin duck.  Cut the breast in long thin strips. Combine shallots, thyme, 2 bay leaves, crumbled, ½ teaspoon salt and a little freshly ground black pepper and dry white wine.  Marinate fillets in this mixture for at least 2 hours. Sauté calf’s liver and duck liver in 4 tablespoons butter until medium rare.  Peel apples; add sugar and cook in lemon juice and remaining butter until soft.  Pass livers and apples through a sieve; add beaten egg and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Blend mixture until it is very smooth.

Line a pâté dish or earthen ware casserole with thin slices of fat salt pork.  Add half the liver and apple mixture and place layers of marinated duck fillets on it.  Stud with truffles rolled in thin slices of fat salt pork; cover with remaining liver and apple mixture and top with fat salt pork.  Place two bay leaves on the pâté; cover casserole; place in a pan of hot water and bake for about 1 ½ hours in a slow oven (350°F).

Remove cover and place a weighted plate on the pâté to compress it gently as it cools.  Take pâté from casserole; remove outside fat and replace in a clean pâté dish.  Decorate with slices of truffle and cover with Madeira aspic.