Term Paper: MANET's Paris Edouard

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Manet's Paris

Edouard Manet's Paris

While his later reputation would posit him as "king of the bohemians," Edouard Manet was actually born firmly within the ranks of the Parisian bourgeoisie in the first half of 1832. He was the son of a judge, Auguste Manet, and a refined woman named Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, who was distantly related to the Crown Prince of Sweden. Thanks to the encouragement of his Uncle Charles Fournier, Manet's interest in the arts was fostered early on; Fournier frequently accompanied the young child to the Louvre to look at the museum's magnificent collection of painting and sculpture.

After a brief stint in the merchant marines, Manet began studying under Thomas Couture. He would remain in Couture's studio until the year 1856. Early influences on Manet were the Spanish - in particular Goya and Velazquez. Manet disagreed with the popular view at the time, however, that all art should reflect classical ideas. Rather than attempting to emulate the Old Masters, Manet broke with tradition early on, proclaiming his allegiance to the ideals of the present and to contemporary life - as well as what would come to be known as the "modern" style. In this, Manet marked a decisive turn away from the art theory of Diderot towards the modernizing tendencies of Charles Baudelaire - although, it should be noted, the esteemed poet and art critic never fully embraced the work of Manet (Rosenberg 1969, p. 173).

Any study of art's relationship with society during this key period in the history of art must take into consideration the revitalization of Paris that was occurring in the 19th century under Baron Haussmann. Prior to the year 1852, Paris had retained its old medieval infrastructure, which was progressively beginning to wither away. Paris was becoming a mess. Haussmann took many steps to modernize Paris, effectively transforming it into the city we know it as today.

There is no doubt that Haussmann's revitalization of the famous city also had effects on Paris's cultural and social life. The city experienced a rise in economic prominence, as the modernization efforts created a number of new jobs. What is more, storefronts were completely redesigned. The streets were both widened and lengthened. Buildings were redeveloped or completely destroyed. In the end, Paris would emerge as the loveliest - and most culturally progressive - capital on earth. The art of Manet and the Impressionists is clearly symptomatic of these shifts in the social landscape.

The Absinthe Drinker of 1858 is the painting that would launch Manet's career as an artist of Modern life. This painting aims to capture the image of a figure one would have commonly seen on one of Paris's back streets during this era - a debauched man sitting alone, wrapped in a cloak, with a glass of absinthe nearby and an empty bottle at his feet. Despite the fact that this man would certainly be far removed from the circle of friends Manet associated with, it is nonetheless a very honest portrayal of the social conditions that existed in Paris in the mid-19th century.

The Old Musician of 1862 is perhaps a more direct reference to the effects that Haussmann's renovation project had on people in French society - in this case, those on the lower end of the social spectrum. Parts of the poorer, more derelict sections of Paris were completely razed in the modernization process, effectively displacing a significant part of the population. It is a group of such displaced individuals, victims of "the new era," that Manet took as his subject in the Old Musician. In the centre of the frieze-like arrangement, an elderly gypsy with a violin in hand stares impassively at us. Next to him stand a triad of children, each of whom is gazing in another direction with a hopeless expression adorning their underdeveloped faces. Already in the Old Musician, we can see traces of Manet's detached, emotionally cold rendering of his subjects - a tone that would come to define his work, and Parisian modernism in general. It is as though Manet wishes to convey the message - this is how life is - but without passing a moral judgment on the circumstances. Instead, he allows the viewer to make up his or her mind on what these people are meant to represent, if anything.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of 1862's La Musique aux Tuileries is the fact that it contains no real subject. This painting is quite a departure from Manet's previous concern with the destitute of Paris. It celebrates the high-class, fashionable society of Paris during this time - a part of society that Manet and his friends were indelibly a part of. There is no real central subject in the painting, though - we are at a celebration of some sort, and are able to lose ourselves in the swirl of the crowd. In this respect, the painting is "out of focus," like being lost in a real crowd. At the same time, through its intricate detail to the clothing worn by the individuals in the picture, we get a good glimpse at what Parisian high society would have looked like during this era.

At the same time, La Musique aux Tuileries represents a definitive break with the dominant styles in French painting of the 19th century and helps pave the way towards the movement that would come to be known as Impressionism. With its loose handling of paint, La Musique aux Tuileries effectively anticipates the "fast painting" methods of the Impressionists, while simultaneously giving inspiration to the "snapshot style" that would later be developed by such painters as Degas.

1862 proved to be quite a productive year for Manet. This was also the year he completed the Spanish Guitar Player. This painting would win Manet acceptance into the renowned Salon, as it was reminiscent of Parisians' love for all things Spanish.

Despite his acceptance into the Salon and the French painterly elite, it was not the Spanish Guitar Player that made Manet a star. Rather, it was his highly controversial Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, which was completed the following year. This painting was rejected from the Salon for its highly unorthodox subject matter and style.

Whereas previous representations in classical art of nude women elevated them to the status of Venus like goddesses, Manet broke with tradition by painting his nude figures as every day people, effectively equal to their male counterparts. The nudity in Dejeuner sur l'Herbe serves no real, visible purpose. Two men and two women are on a picnic, and one of the women has apparently removed her clothes. There is no orgy going on, as she is the only one who is undressed. In the words of Australian art critic Robert Hughes (1990):

The painting has the quality of farce, presented in the guise of a Second Empire pictorial machine. At the same time it is intensely serious (as farce can be), and one of the victims of its seriousness is the stereotype of the nude. Manet invariably painted women as equal beings, not as denatured objects of allure. Victorine, the model, is clearly a model doing a professional stint; the illusions of the Salon body, timelessness and glamour, are no longer properties of nakedness. Other artists painted nymphs as whores; it took Manet, in the Olympia, to paint a whore as her own person, staring back at the voyeurs, restricting the offer to a transaction. Here, as in paintings of women who were not models (such as Berthe Morisot, whose shadowed and inward-turning beauty Manet could portray as the index of thought), one sees him inventing the image of the "modern" woman. It was there to be seen; but that is true of any prophecy (138).

It was not just Dejeuner sur l'Herbe that experienced the brunt of rejection that year at the Salon. So many quality paintings were rejected in 1863 that several artists banded together in order to form the Salon des Refuses as a kind of counter-protest to that year's Salon. It was at the Salon des Refuses that Manet's star first shown in the form of this rejected painting, which has since gone on to become regarded as a masterpiece - a key work of early Impressionism. But this recognition did not come early. In the words of MacDonald (1999):

Although influenced by Raphael and Giorgione, Dejeuner did not bring Manet laurels and accolades. It brought criticism. Critics found Dejeuner to be anti-academic and politically suspect and the ensuing firestorm surrounding this painting has made Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe a benchmark in academic discussions of modern art. The nude in Manet's painting was no nymph, or mythological being... she was a modern Parisian women cast into a contemporary setting with two clothed men. Many found this to be quite vulgar and begged the question "Who's for lunch?" The critics also had much to say about Manet's technical abilities. His harsh frontal lighting and elimination of mid tones rocked ideas of traditional academic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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