“…they believed that the artist had placed an obscene intent in the disposition of the subject" - On Édouard Manet

23 January 1832, the French painter Édouard Manet was born in Paris.
“…they believed that the artist had placed an obscene intent in the disposition of the subject, while the artist had simply sought to obtain vibrant oppositions and a straightforward audience. Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists.” (Émile Zola)

Édouard Manet’s “Olympia”, depicting one of his two favourite models, Victorine Meurent, as a prostitute
à la Giorgione and Titian, first exhibited in 1865 when it caused quite the scandal at the Paris Salon.

They were calculated scandals. Nobody would have raised so much as an eyebrow if the two gentlemen in the now famous image of the luncheon on the grass had worn a toga. In fact, Titians and Raphaels hung in the Louvre, showing pastoral concerts of antiquity and Paris’ judgement in pretty much the same surroundings and everybody depicted in the nekkid and nobody took offence. Even if the Old Masters have had quite the same revelation as Manet’s friend Antonin Proust describes his mate’s Damascus experience: “… we spent a Sunday at Argenteuil, stretched out on the river bank … Some women were bathing. Manet fixed his eyes on the flesh of those who came out of the water. It seems, ‘he said to me, ‘that I have to make a nude.” And he knew perfectly well that critics along with the audience would pull him to pieces for it if he would do it in a contemporary setting. At least he did not exhibit the piece under its rather racy working title “La Partie carée”. Shamed be who thinks ill of it. Manet became the martyr of the modernists.

Édouard Manet: The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863)

They didn’t call him the “Last Old Master” for nothing. In fact, Manet had created Modernity out of the Renaissance and Baroque. And if the critics, Emperor Napoleon III among them, had panned “le Déjeuner sur l'herbe”, the effect on the Parisian art scene was rather fertilizing – for Manet as well as modern art. "The leader, the hero of Realism“, Théophile Gautier wrote, “His partisans are frenzied and his detractors timid. It would seem that, if one refuses to accept Manet, one must fear being taken for a philistine, a bourgeois, a Joseph Prudhomme, an idiot who cares for nothing but miniatures and painted porcelain to discover whether one has become obese or bald, incapable of understanding the audacities of youth." And even if the hero of Realism himself would have refused any experiments of painting en plein air or à l’impressionnisme, or being fulsomely realistic as to that, with his very own narrative and the black ribbon that is drawn through his works, an almost metaphysic “noir absolu”, Baudelaire’s modern metropolis tapestried in its wordless banality far more authentic than any of the symbolists could have approached the topic. And it took indeed some nerve to paint the demi-monde along the lines of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”. But then, it was Goya as well as Velázquez’ concept of Baroque that had influenced him, even more than the enchantingly orderly perception of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance did.

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