Intimate Manet

It takes a bold museum to attempt, outside Paris, to stage a Manet show. “Olympia” and “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”, the 19th-century masterpieces that determined the course of modern art, never leave the Musée d’Orsay, and starred in its important 2011 Manet retrospective. The Orsay also owns other rarely lent statement pictures – “The Fifer”, radically flat as a playing card; the life-size portrait of three detached figures in “The Balcony” – heralding modernism’s artifice and alienation. All mark Manet as the pioneer who put the human situation at the heart of his experiments with form and composition. The Royal Academy’s challenge in its new exhibition Manet: Portraying Life is to tell that story without the trophy pieces.

Instead, here is Manet at intimate scale, with a concentration on portraits and genre scenes arranged not chronologically but according to model and milieu: family, literature and theatre, men of the world. It sounds a perverse way of considering so complex a painter and the Royal Academy cannot rival the Orsay’s recent exhibition in scope or depth. But it does offer both intellectual revelation and visual delight, sharpening our perception of how Manet worked and urging attention on lesser-known pieces.

The ravishing, simplified late pastels of sumptuously attired young women – “Girl in a Summer Bonnet”, “Mademoiselle Suzette Lemaire”, “Eva Gonzalès” – come into their own. Their pink-cream-grey delicacy reflects Manet’s own fragile health – when it became easier to handle chalk than oil – yet also his unceasing concern with the transient beauty of fashion as intimating, in Baudelaire’s words, “the heroism of modern life”.

Manet wanted his portraits to appear immediate, direct, capturing the fleeting instant. Poet Stéphane Mallarmé gazes into undefined space, cigar instead of pen in hand, lost in a moment of creative reverie. Singer Emile Ambre performs as Carmen, her bright costume delineated with swift economical strokes, her face illumined in lambent white, suggesting stark stage lights. Painter Giuseppe de Nittis and his wife relax in their garden one summer afternoon as luminosity turns to shadow. Wearing long gold gloves offsetting a black dress and hat, Marie Gamby strolls through a luxuriant park evoked in loose, dashing marks in “The Promenade” – a painting, despite its title and setting, executed entirely in Manet’s Paris studio.

For in fact, such portraits were composed precisely, their fashionable costumes and backcloths laboriously choreographed, demanding many sittings. Philibert Rouvière died halfway through the extended creation of “The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet)”, inspired by Velázquez’s portrait of jester Pablo de Vallodolid; friends modelled his unfinished legs and hands. “After the 15th sitting, my portrait was no further advanced than on the first day; the model was discouraged and also the painter,” noted art critic Albert Wolff.

This was typical: many works here are unfinished; most were made amid the artist’s anxiety that “I am always afraid the model will let me down ... that I will not see them as often nor in the conditions that I would like. They come, they pose, then they go, telling themselves he can finish it off on his own. Well, no, one cannot finish anything on one’s own.”

The exceptions, wonderfully explored here, were three women, each complicit in Manet’s revolutionary endeavour to forge a new, manipulated realism. One was Berthe Morisot, painter, Manet’s sister-in-law, and emblem of the 19th-century woman torn between bourgeoisie and bohemia. She modelled for “The Balcony” – “I look strange, rather than ugly”, she remarked of this provocatively stiff rendering – and for many smaller scale depictions here, notably the shimmering, highly finished “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets”, rendered in fluid, deep black strokes touched with blue, emphasising dark intense eyes, soft lips, implying a mercurial, troubled temperament.

‘Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets’ (1872)

Second was Suzanne Leenhoff, the Dutch piano teacher whom the artist married in 1863, 11 years after she gave birth to a son, Leon. His paternity is uncertain; Manet and his father are alike candidates and Leon’s confusion about his identity – he was only allowed to call Suzanne “mother” at home – adds poignancy to his depiction as the enigmatic, disengaged protagonist, forced up tight against the picture plane, in the disconcertingly static conversation painting “The Luncheon”.

By contrast Manet’s comfort with Suzanne lent her portraits an unmatched freedom. Stolid and easy-going, she is the centre of a tonal, still-life harmony of piano, painting and panelling in “Madame Manet at the Piano”. Fair and round-featured at 50, she is enveloped by foliage in “Madame Manet in the Conservatory”, seated next to Manet’s smock, thrown casually over a bench to hint at his presence beside her – this near-marriage portrait hung in the couple’s bedroom long after Manet’s death. Shortly before, he completed the abbreviated “Woman with a Cat”, a squall of bold, broad pink strokes in which plump Suzanne, echoed by a curled cat on her knee, seems to dissolve into the fabric of the canvas.

It cannot be coincidence that the year Manet married Suzanne also saw the breakthrough of “Olympia” and “Le Déjeuner”, the contemporary reworkings of Titian’s “Venus” and “Concert champêtre” that outraged Paris. The impassive nude brazenly returning our stare in those works was auburn-haired Victorine Meurent. Along with a scaled-down sketch of “Le Déjeuner”, she features here in a head-and-shoulders portrait (1862), already confronting us with her direct gaze, enhanced by harsh lighting and a sculptural build-up of paint, in the structure of her strong features, that presages Cézanne. The same year she posed as a tired chanteuse whom Manet glimpsed on a street corner. “The Street Singer”, at once stagy and naturalistic, grandly classical and evoking the fleeting movement of a photograph, encapsulates Manet’s attempt to resolve contradictions between tradition and modernity.

Stylistic instability is the keynote here. There are portraits – foppish connoisseur Theodore Duret, for instance – which are modelled on carte-de-visite snapshots, only to answer the camera with an exquisite painterly still-life of glass, silver, lemon, in a corner. Cropped and denying conventional spatial recession, “The Railway”, featuring Victorine, laconic as ever, crammed by iron bars into a narrow foreground plane, references photographic compositions but the depiction of clouds of steam from a locomotive passing the cutting by Hausmann’s new boulevards is a high point of impressionism.

“The Railway”, like the National Gallery’s teeming “Music in the Tuileries Gardens”, is a cultural self-portrait. The latter, bizarrely exhibited alone in a large gallery here, features, among depictions of Baudelaire, Fantin-Latour, Jacques Offenbach, Manet himself as a flâneur. At once participating in and observing the great experiment in modern urban life, he was, by his balance of neutrality and passionate commitment, its unrivalled chronicler.

Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy, London, to April 14

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