Capturing more than a camera’s lens: “The Railway” by Edouard Manet
The honorary title of “the father of modern art” is like a bird that can- not settle. It alights briefly on, say, Duchamp or Caspar David Friedrich or El Greco or late Titian and flies off again. Pick your artist and look hard enough and some- thing “modern” is likely to be found. One of the more frequent resting places, however, is Edouard Manet (1832-83) and his claims are among the soundest.
Manet was the 19th-century artist who best correspond- ed to the poet Baudelaire’s definition of “the painter of modern life”: part flâneur, part “passionate spectator”, an urban figure not immune to fashion. With his upper middle-class background Manet could afford to please himself; he was a thoroughgoing Parisian (“The countryside only has its charms for those who are not obliged to live there”), charming, chic (as a young man he had a penchant for yellow trousers), and a fixture of café culture.
As a painter he was a traditionalist rebel. His canvases Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia caused two of the greatest scandals in French art precisely because they displayed a deep knowledge of Renaissance art and seemingly traduced it by making the main figure in each a naked prostitute and painting her with little regard for detail or finish. These were reworkings of a Giorgion- esque fête champêtre and Titian’s Venus of Urbino that took established forms and add- ed to them a confrontational sexuality.
The pictures made him the critics’ favourite target or, as one commentator noted: “And Manet! One could say that criticism has gathered up all the insults which it has poured on his precursors for half a century, to throw them at his head all at one time.” Despite the near universal abuse he kept coming back for more and between 1859 and his death he submitted work to 19 out of a possible 21 of the official Salon exhibitions.
Another aspect of his art that riled commentators was his portraiture, which was hard to categorise—were his portraits straight likenesses or rather genre paintings of the people who inhabited the modern world? In these pictures too Manet eschewed the niceties of handling. One of his early sitters, Madame Brunet, was so affronted by his crude paintwork that she burst into tears when she saw the picture and refused to accept it.