Bouquets of beauty: Manet’s late paintings

Édouard Manet, “Four Mandarin Oranges” (about 1882). Oil on canvas. Unframed: 18.4 × 24.1 cm (7 1/4 × 9 1/2 in.) Drs. Robert N. Mayer and Debra E. WeeseMayer Family Collection, Chicago

Flowers, femininity and fashion

“Manet and Modern Beauty” at the Getty

As one of the key Impressionist painters of the 1860s and ‘70s, Édouard Manet (1832-1883) needs no introduction. However, most of the work we’re familiar with was created during the earlier part of a career that was, unfortunately, cut short by illness and death. The pictures from the last five or so years of his life have never received the degree of attention that they do here in “Manet and Modern Beauty,” a collaboration between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. First in Chicago, now in L.A., it’s a sumptuous exhibition and on view through January 12.

Monet’s claim to fame rests securely with paintings such as “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe/Luncheon on the Grass” (1863), “Music in the Tuileries” (1862), “Olympia” (1863), “The Dead Toreador” (1864), “The Execution of Maximilian” (1867), “Gare Saint-Lazare” (1873), and, finally, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” (1881). Most of these works indicate an artist who was bold and confident, set upon earning a place at the table of great art. In his last decade, Manet withdrew somewhat, becoming more introspective, more artistically polite and certainly less provocative. It was a sign of his maturity as an individual and as an artist, although driven in part by a decline in health. Nonetheless, the earlier work is what we tend to remember when we think of Manet, and now we’ll be thinking equally of the later work as well.

Or will we? How memorable, how “impressionable,” is “Manet and Modern Beauty”?

Édouard Manet, “The Cafe-Concert” (about 1878-1879). Oil on canvas. Unframed: 47.3 × 39.1 cm (18 5/8 × 15 3/8 in.) The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

“In lively portraits and genre scenes set in fashionable urban locales, Manet was guided above all by a desire to characterize for posterity the women of his era–and to a lesser extent the men–in memorable artistic form.” So write Timothy Potts and James Rondeau, heads of the Getty and the Art Institute of Chicago, at the start of the show’s detailed catalogue.

The 1882 Salon in Paris was the last one in which Manet exhibited. He submitted “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” and “Jeanne,” the latter also known as “Jeanne (Spring).” The former work was on view as a stand-alone at the Getty in 2007 but has not returned for the current exhibition, which is unfortunate in that it not only would have rejoined “Jeanne” but it would have complemented the many café and brasserie scenes on view (even if most of these were composed in Manet’s studio).

“A Bar at the Folies-Bergére,” at whose center is a barmaid, wistful or lost in thought and momentarily isolated from the bustling activity around her, depicts, in the words of Scott Allan, a “new-fangled hybrid space that was part theater, circus, café-concert, winter garden, and promenade.” (The author J.K. Huysmans, on the other hand, all but ushers us inside: “A great hubbub rises from the gathering crowd. A warm haze, mingled with exhalations of every kind and saturated with the acrid dust that comes from carpets and chairs when you beat them, envelops the hall. The smell of cigars and women becomes more noticeable…”) The venue, Allan concludes, “was closely associated with Manet’s dearly held identity as a flaneur and boulevardier.”

Allan is a curator at the Getty along with Emily Beeny, and, together with Gloria Groom of the Art Institute of Chicago, the curators of this show, as well as the editors and principal contributors to the catalogue.

Édouard Manet, “Jeanne (Spring)” (1881). Oil on canvas Unframed: 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Snapshots of an era

One of the reasons why “Jeanne (Spring)” hasn’t until lately been better known or publicized is because it had been in a private collection until the Getty purchased it in 2014. That’s not to say it was never exhibited, so by no means was it a lost or neglected work.

At any rate, it’s been pushed forward as this show’s pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of this curatorial bouquet, an acceptable assertion in that it centralizes all of Manet’s late-inning concerns: a stylish young woman and the flowers and flowery designs that embrace her. Scott Allan again: “Making a future-oriented identification with the past while grounding himself in the present, Manet proposed in ‘Jeanne’ an enduring icon of fashionable contemporaneity. Youth and springtime were fleeting, but was there also not, as Zola insisted, an eternal youth and eternal spring, that of great painting surviving the test of time?”

The complement of “Jeanne” is “Autumn (Méry Laurent),” composed in 1881 or ‘82. It’s also an accomplished painting (although unfinished), but “Jeanne” is visually more charming, more colorful, more alluring. Apparently, Manet had intended to paint four pictures of elegantly-attired young women, one for each season.

Édouard Manet, “Plum Brandy” (about 1877). Oil on canvas. Unframed: 73.6 × 50.2 cm (29 × 19 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

In large part, it boils down to this: Manet loved to depict young, attractive, fashionably dressed women, actresses and demimondaines who largely circulated through the French capital and its environs. He made some pretty women pretty for centuries to come, such as his “Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen” (1880). Were he alive today, Manet might be something of a fashion photographer, but one with a remarkably perceptive eye for the model as well as the outfit. And not only that, a photographer who takes in everything vital at once, from tonality and form to overall composition.

So we have several fine portraits in the show, from the formal (his good friend Antonin Proust, 1880) to the informal, slice-of-life portraits like “Plum Brandy” (c.1877). The latter is among those brasserie and café-concert scenes where one can imagine the chattering of voices, the odor of cigarettes and beer, with music and singing in the background. One of the best examples of this is “The Café-Concert” (c.1878-79), a cabaret snapshot foregrounded by a gentleman in a top hat and a distracted or perhaps bored female companion at this side, beer mugs in front of them. It has an ambience, an atmosphere that fascinated Manet, as it did many of his contemporaries (Degas, Renoir) at the time.

There are portraits of Suzanne Manet, his wife, and her cat Zizi. An exceptionally fine work, “In the Conservatory” (c.1877-79) was on display in Chicago, but is not shown in Los Angeles. I know we’re supposed to focus only on what we have, not on what we don’t have, but this would have been a wonderful addition as it’s also one of Manet’s late masterpieces.

Last but not least, while on the subject of portraiture, there’s “Mr. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter” (1881), a trophy shot in which Pertuiset, well-dressed in a Swiss-German hunting outfit, holds onto his rifle or musket while down on one knee, posing with his prize. It’s an oddball picture (and all the more visually riveting for that) in which the setting less resembles an African savannah than a European forest, with a chalky blue carpet-meadow behind man and beast. One almost expects to see Monet’s water lilies floating up in the background. While it may not be a great painting, it’s one of the most intriguing in this exhibition.

One might not expect a lion hunter to be a collector of Manet’s work, especially his late flower paintings, but Pertuiset owned up to 17 of them. Ironically, the German painter Max Liebermann also may have owned the exact same amount.

Édouard Manet, “The Drinker (Alphonse Maureau)” (about 1878 – 1879). Pastel on canvas Unframed: 54.7 × 45.2 cm (21 9/16 × 17 13/16 in.) The Art Institute of Chicago, Bequest of Kate L. Brewster, 1950

From outward to intimate

“Manet and Modern Beauty” has five sections, and the last of these focuses on the small things, the singular still lifes (such as asparagus, plums, flowers in a vase, etc) that consumed much of Manet’s time and energy during his final year or two. While these aren’t the kinds of intimate subjects one might have expected from the painter of “The Battle of the ‘Kearsarge’ and the ‘Alabama’” (1864) or “Christ with Angels” (also 1864), the influences of which may have been Goya, Velázquez, and even Titian or Rubens, they are presumably the result of his new or renewed interest in Chardin, Fragonard, and de La Tour. The 18th century and its artists had drifted back into vogue during the mid-19th, and clearly caught Manet’s attention. Or, as Emily Beeny puts it, “A graceful informality, a cultivated effortlessness: these, in the end, must have been the qualities that most attracted Manet to eighteenth-century art.” Besides, as his illness made going about in public more difficult, the subject matter became simpler and quieter.

For example, could we have imagined him painting vase after vase of flowers in the early 1860s?

The catalogue, overly serious and concerning itself with minute details about each work, doesn’t allow for amusing anecdotes from the painter’s life. There are, to our great relief, one or two exceptions, particularly concerning the painting “Bunch of Asparagus” that Charles Ephrussi purchased from Manet in 1880. The painter had asked for 800 francs but Ephrussi, pleased with the work, handed over 1,000. Returning the generosity, Manet completed a little work, “Asparagus,” which depicts a single stalk of asparagus. He then gave it to Ephrussi with a note, “”One was missing from your bunch.”

Édouard Manet, “Moss Roses in a Vase” (about 1882). Oil on canvas. Unframed: 55.9 × 34.6 cm (22 × 13 5/8 in.) Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

For the viewer of this exhibition in L.A., however, it’s the bunch that’s missing. Only the singular stalk is being shown here. Too bad, because otherwise we’d have something to smile at and comment on.

“Manet and Modern Beauty” closes with several small paintings, contemplative bouquets if you will, of various flowers in vases, botanical fireworks in the night. Upon seeing Manet’s late bouquets in Berlin in 1909, Max Osborn wrote that “Now comes the time of merriment for Manet. The Spanish darkness is sinking. A lilac stalk appears so delicate and fair against a black background that one feels the trace of its scene emanating from it.”

These flowers-in-a-vase paintings do hold our interest, but if they were attributed to someone of lesser renown I do not think we’d be lingering over them for very long. What they are is part of a larger and rather melancholic story. As Beeny notes, “Marooned in the spa town (Bellevue) by a painful course of treatments, Manet struggled to find the energy and the will to paint.”

Manet’s suburban summer rest cures were undertaken outside of Paris in 1880, 1881, and 1882. He and his wife rented a villa in Bellevue (he later stayed in Rueil), which may not have been far from the lively French capital, but nonetheless Manet missed the stimulation of the city and its inhabitants. Most of the short letters that are republished in the catalogue were written from Bellevue. To his benefit, Manet doesn’t express self-pity but tends to put a bright face on his circumstances.

In the end, as we leave the gallery, will we appreciated Manet more than before?

Édouard Manet, “Portrait of Antonin Proust” (1880). Oil on canvas. Unframed: 129.5 × 95.9 cm (51 × 37 3/4 in.) Toledo Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1925.108 Photo: Richard Goodbody Inc., New York

Perhaps, but if so not by much. “Jeanne” is pleasant, sure, and we’re glad the Getty has it, but there are easily a dozen, two dozen other works by Manet that are more striking. What’s important is that we have a better understanding of the life, the unfulfilled ambitions, but also the travails of a great artist during his last years when he was increasingly debilitated by pain and the disease that would escort him to an early grave.

One aspect of this presentation that falls short is the exhibition’s thick catalogue in which too many of the essays are overly fussy, losing any momentum they may have had in tiny details. So what if a watering can appears in several of Manet’s pictures? Over and over again, the writers fail to convey the passion in the man or the work. A present-day Huysmans, whom I quoted above, might have brought the subject bursting into life.

The art speaks for itself, of course, and Manet… Well, you simply can’t pass up an exhibition devoted to Manet; that much, we know, is beyond question.

Manet and Modern Beauty is on view through Jan. 12 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Over 90 works are on display, including Manet’s watercolor set, with two brushes, and Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Portrait of Édouard Manet” (1867), an elegant portrait of a deeply sensitive man. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free; parking varies, but expect to pay $20. The official catalogue, nicely illustrated, is $65 (from Getty Publications), and there are other Manet books available as well. Check the website for related events. (310) 440-7300 or go to ER


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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