How a young trainee seafarer came ashore to mature as one of the world’s great artists. The Royal Academy prepares to showcase the portraiture of Édouard Manet By James Brewer
The great individualist French painter Édouard Manet learnt critical elements of his craft during a brief spell at sea. As a young man, he embarked on a training ship to learn seamanship, but after twice failing the entrance exam for a naval school, he turned to studying art on land. His relationship to the sea has been treated by past exhibitions, including shows at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art a year later. Now London is to showcase his portraiture, when the Royal Academy in January 2013 unveils the largest gallery of his paintings seen in the UK. While the works are from his mature period, it will be worth remembering his early nautical adventure and return to Paris which broadened his horizons artistically and politically.
Born in the French capital in 1832, Édouard was encouraged by his father Auguste to pursue a career in law and meanwhile at the age of 16 he enlisted in the merchant marine on the three-mast training vessel Le Havre et Guadeloupe, sailing to Rio de Janeiro. The officers were fascinated by his drawing skills and begged him to make portraits of them, when he was not sketching seascapes from the upper deck. Portraiture was to remain a major commitment throughout his life (he died at the age of just 51), although as MaryAnne Stevens of the Royal Academy (curator of the 2013 exhibition with Dr Larry Nichols of Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio) says, he would become engaged in a “quiet subversion of the demarcations between traditional pictorial genres.”
Manet was thus at sea at the end of 1848, the year of revolution in France that led to the creation of the Second Republic, and which was a touchstone for uprisings in other European countries. Awareness of all this furore left him a republican and radical – he was most unhappy at the coup d’état of Napoleon III – until his dying day.
Despite the importance of appreciating his work for an understanding of many of the trends of 19th century modernist painting, there has never been a retrospective of the kind the Royal Academy is staging, nor has the subject been treated at length in literature.
Manet brought a new authenticity to portraiture, fully embracing realism, says Ms Stevens, and he was undeterred by rejection and negative criticism from the establishment.
This perhaps did not worry this highly sociable man. After his early maritime foray, he became very much an urban socialite, and counted among his friends the Impressionists Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot (to whom his younger brother was married). He sought however to distinguish himself from the impressionist movement.
Visitors to the Royal Academy will view 50 of his surviving 400 works (he is thought to have destroyed a good many others), in which he poses his sitters in naturalistic settings, perhaps borrowing from the composition possibilities of photography, which was beginning to take off towards the close of his life. He was intrigued by the new medium and had himself photographed on many occasions.
Above all, he was his own man, resolutely unbound by portraiture convention, and eagerly followed by the succeeding generation of artists.
The exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life, will open at Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, on October 7 2012, with the final day January 1 2013, before transferring to the Royal Academy on January 26, until April 14.
A huge debt of gratitude for being able to mount this show is owed to sponsorship from the financial services group BNY Mellon, which lent its strong support to earlier Royal Academy shows including those on Van Gogh and Degas, and has promised to do the same for a 2015 exhibition on Rubens.