Manet and Modernism

Manet and Modernism: A Perspective on Manet Modernism, as it relates to the work of Edouard Manet, requires at least two caveats as prerequisites to forming a perspective. The problem is twofold: 1) ‘modernism’ is a term with broad, even sometimes vague, definitions, and 2) Edouard Manet’s prolific work is open to broad degrees of interpretation. In the first instance, and for the contextual purposes of this essay, ‘modernism’ can be described here as primarily including efforts in the field of art within the political and historical framework of 1860 to 1970.

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However, as one expert notes, “Modernism has its roots in the past” (Witcombe, 1997). Here, we are concerned with the ‘mechanics’ of modern art (line, shape, color, etc. ), but it is important to understand the philosophy that motivated such art. Secondly, Edouard Manet’s painting career of over 30 years included approximately 284 oil paintings (listing appended) with assorted discernible styles. Yet, between the formalism of his earliest works, and the impressionism of his later works, are works experimental in nature.

With reference to one of these ‘typical’ experimental works, “Young Lady with a Parrot” (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, December 2008), a perspective on Manet can be simply stated: Edouard Manet’s work exhibits the essential hallmarks of modernism. In fact, by bridging and combining the styles traditionally thought of as impressionism, realism, and modernism, Manet can rightfully be considered a ‘father of modernism’ in art.

Helpful in understanding the philosophy, and aesthetics, of ‘modernism’ in its historical context are the comments of Phi Delta Kappan Elkind. Although this author is specifically concerned with trends in education, his comments serve to summarize modernist philosophy well. He states, “Modernity was built on three unquestioned assumptions about the world. The first idea was that of progress, the notion that societies inevitably moved forward in a positive direction from slavery and feudalism to individual freedom and democracy….

A second underlying conception of modernity was that of universality. The emergence of science, the scientific method, and the reliance on observation and experiment was encouraged by the modern belief that nature, rather than religious or imperial authority, was the only source of knowledge and truth. Nature was assumed to operate according to universal laws that could be discovered by diligent research…[and]… The last undergirding assumption of the modern world was that of regularity.

Nature was lawful, and the task of science was to uncover this lawfulness” (Elkind, 1997). With these basic concepts in mind, how then was the ‘modernist’ artist of Manet’s time to proceed? As various experts and critics have analyzed and digested the painters of Manet’s time, it has gradually become clear that while Manet acknowledged his predecessors and their talent, he also paradoxically incorporated ‘twists’ in his paintings which suggest a very rebellious, or at least experimental, nature more akin to a modernist viewpoint than to accepted authority.

He did rely on live models and sketchbooks, but yet, as his friend Zola commented, “… Manet’s was a pure artistic temperament driven ‘to achieve beautiful patches, beautiful contrasts'” (Shattuck, 1997). In addition, it is notable that although Manet has been identified with Impressionism, he never once exhibited his paintings at Impressionist exhibitions during his lifetime, even though he had ample opportunities to do so. His students (e. g. , Monet) embraced Impressionism and generally considered Manet a ‘mentor figure’.

Noted art historian Witcombe sums up the prevailing consensus of experts regarding modern art and Manet thusly: “Art historians tend to speak of modern painting, for example, as concerned primarily with qualities of colour, shape, and line applied systematically or expressively, and marked over time by an increasing concern with flatness and a declining interest in subject matter. It is generally agreed that modernism in art originated in the 1860s and that the French painter Edouard Manet is the first modernist painter.

Paintings such as his Le Dejeuner surl’herbe (‘Luncheon on the Grass’) and Olympia are seen to have ushered in the era of modernism” (Witcombe, 1997). Unfortunately, these paintings were largely rejected by the art authorities of Manet’s time, and were actually perceived to be scandalous and ‘indecent’ nudes by both critics and the public; certainly not in a classical style (even though, in the first instance, the large canvas size intentionally suggested that). Having been rejected by the very art authorities he acknowledged, Manet responded with typical determination, and as Zola might intone, his own unique view.

It is at this juncture that he produced the variously titled and unusual “Young Lady with a Parrot” in 1866. On the surface, this work combines the realism of a photograph-like Victorian lady with the brush strokes of an impressionist. Looking deeper, we also see hints of a technique Manet later perfected in one of his last works, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) with its “Radical…obliteration of the boundary between the viewer and what is viewed, …” (Courthion, 2010).

We are not quite sure where the young lady is looking, nor the parrot, whose dinner duck is apparently on the floor, haphazardly positioned on several surfaces. As for the color, Manet manages to have the peignoir stand out more than the young lady’s countenance, and the rough edges of the parrot’s unfinished meal distract the eye. The parrot itself is a rather uncharacteristically bland color, while its meal (the duck) is much more brilliantly colored. The line, color, strokes, and lighting are even more striking when we realize that this was painted using a live model.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) where the painting was later donated, “The theme of a woman and her parrot-confidante has literary and pictorial antecedents. But this picture, for which Victorine Meurent posed in 1866, was probably Manet’s answer to Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (29. 100. 57), exhibited in the Salon of 1866. When Manet’s picture was shown in the Salon of 1868, one critic wrote that ‘he has borrowed the parrot from his friend Courbet and placed it on a perch next to a young woman in a pink peignoir. These realists are capable of anything! Most critics ignored the subject, however, in favor of ridiculing Manet’s ‘present vice … a sort of pantheism in which the head is esteemed no more than a slipper. ’ The picture was exhibited on three occasions during Manet’s lifetime” (Hadler, 1973). Looking at Manet’s actual techniques in “Young Lady with a Parrot”, however, might lead us to interpret this work as simultaneously realistic and impressionistic. Indeed, the photographic-like quality of many of Manet’s figures within the context of impressionistic colors and strokes often created an uncomfortable ambiguity for his viewers.

Since Manet was not poor, and was well aware of the existence of the technology of photography, it has even been suggested that he utilized photographs for some of his works (Worth, 2007). As tempting as this unsubstantiated theory might be, “Young Lady with a Parrot” is more likely a combination of Manet techniques. Firstly, the young lady in the painting was actually the same professional model in Manet’s rejected nude paintings (Waller, 2007). This is important because Manet preferred to finish his paintings in one sitting (_alla prima_).

This meant he had to paint quickly, without layers of paint to dry. In fact, he uses patches of color here and there and catches the viewer’s attention with the contrast (e. g. , the pink peignoir against the blackish background. ). Monet later adopted this ‘patch’ technique in miniature to produce a characteristic impressionist style. For Manet as an artist, though, the color was foremost and other considerations, secondary. Secondly, we have an unruly perspective (‘indecent’) in the torn open dinner of the parrot (foreground) beside the lady in a nightgown.

This is also ironic, since we have another rejected Manet painting of the now clothed lady whose nude (‘indecent’) paintings were rejected; this same Manet painting imitates the nude work of a fellow artist’s ‘lady with parrot’, whose work was accepted. Aesthetically, where can such a work as “Young Lady with a Parrot” fit in with the philosophy of modernism? We are once again faced with the ambiguities of what is meant by ‘modernism’. Nevertheless, some hallmarks of modernism have been identified as it relates to art.

In an analysis of Foucault’s attempts to define some of these characteristics in Manet’s works, Tanke notes, “This is the movement by which painting’s fundamental properties form, at the same time, the starting point for and subject matter of an art that continually composes and recomposes itself through an exchange with what has come before it” (Tanke, 2008). “Young Lady with a Parrot” meets these criteria in its approach to color (the dark classical background), the photographic lighting effect (frontal lighting), and brush stroke/patch effect, which was a prelude to Impressionism. Another modernist hallmark is noted by Mr.

Witcombe in his excellent overview “The Roots of Modernism” in which he states,” It was also felt that reason stifled imagination, and without imagination no progress would be made. Reason alone was inhuman, but imagination without reason ‘produces monsters‘… It was agreed, though, that freedom was central and was to be pursued through the very exercise of freedom in the contemporary world” (Witcombe, 1997). The “Young Lady with a Parrot” again meets these criteria: her expression gives the impression that she is free to be and do whatever she pleases, and the unfinished parrot’s meal is both realistic and imaginative at the same time.

According to Grove Art Online, this struggle between autonomy and contingency is perhaps the key to understanding modernism in art (Oxford Art Online, 2010) and here, the political and historical context of Manet’s work. This era was a struggle between the status quo with its precedents, versus individual freedom, with its attempts to define and redefine attendant responsibilities. “Young Lady with a Parrot” touches on this dichotomy: the subject is typically a classical choice, but done with a freedom of color, stroke, and light that is clearly not classical.

It is this struggle, represented by paradoxical elements, that qualifies this work, “Young Lady with a Parrot”, as an early example of ‘modern’ art. Like many artists before and since, Edouard Manet was a product of his times. The Napoleonic era, with its many excesses, was gradually ending. Political, cultural, and social unrest fueled a struggle between the established order and an uncertain future. In this environment, Manet painted as an artist trying to reflect a new order whose boundaries were unknown.

He used many of the tools of his trade, but combined his artistic elements in striking and experimental ways. Oftentimes, this left viewers uncertain as to his message and therefore uncomfortable. As professor Danto profoundly reminds us,”…the philosophy of art has deep questions to consider, questions of representation and reality, of structure, truth, and meaning…. when art attains the level of self-consciousness it has come to attain in our era, the distinction between art and philosophy becomes as problematic as the distinction between reality and art.

And the degree to which the appreciation of art becomes a matter of applied philosophy can hardly be overestimated” (Danto, 1983). In “Young Lady in 1866 (Woman with a Parrot)” the elements presented here emphasize and support this viewpoint and, in this light, we can truly see Manet as a ‘father of modernism’. References Courthion, P. (2010). Manet, Edouard. Britannica Biographies, 1. Retrieved January 16, 2010 from EBSCOhost MasterFILE Premier database. Danto, A. C. (1983). Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of art.

Humanities, Vol. 4 No. 1 (February, 1983), pp. 1-2. Elkind, D. (1997). The death of child nature. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(3), 241. Retrieved from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier database. Hadler, A. C. , (1973). “Manet’s Woman with a Parrot of 1866,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Journal, vol. 7, pp. 115-22 n. a. (2010). Modernism. Oxford Art Online In Grove Art Online_. _Retrieved February 12, 2010from http://www. oxfordartonline. com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T058785 New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. December 2008). “Edouard Manet: Young Lady in 1866 (89. 21. 3)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved January 17, 2010 from http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/mane/ho_89. 21. 3. htm. Shattuck, R. (1997). Stages on Art’s Way. New Republic, 216(5), 43-49. Retrieved January 17, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database. Tanke, J. (2008). The Specter of Manet: A Contribution to the Archaeology of Painting. Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, 66(4), 381-392. doi:10. 1111/j. 1540 6245. 2008. 00318. x. Waller, S. 2007). Realist Quandaries: Posing Professional and Proprietary Models in the 1860s. Art Bulletin, 89(2), 239-265. Retrieved from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier database. Witcombe, C. L. C. E. (1997). The roots of modernism. Exhibition seminar presented at Greenbrier College, Virginia, Retrieved from http://witcombe. sbc. edu/modernism/roots. html Worth, A. (2007). The Lost Photographs of Edouard Manet. Art in America, 95(1), 59-65. Retrieved January 15, 2010 from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier database.


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