Manet and impressionism

Photo by Carmela Gross


Édouard Manet acted as a kind of encourager and reference for young impressionist painters, but that did not mean he participated in the movement.


The strength proper to the finite: the measure

Despite the conflicts that marked the reception of Édouard Manet's painting while he was alive, it has become frequent since the historiographical works of Julius Meier-Graefe (the first of which[I] published fifteen years after the painter's death), the assimilation of Manet as the first of the impressionists.

Later, with the acceptance and officialization of modern art, such reception became an automatically reproduced cliché (it is a case of critical misfortune covered by the mantle of posthumous glory, both impeding each one in its own way,[ii] the understanding of what was disruptive and disturbing about this painting at the time it appeared).

In fact, the denial of measurement and related limits constituted one of the dividing marks between impressionism and Édouard Manet (who demarcated and highlighted contrasts and limits, measuring his objects in one way or another, as will be seen below). Conversely, if it is true that the series of water lilies (paradigm of a descriptive situation subject to the prevailing affirmation of an unlimited unifying feeling), by Claude Monet, was only realized decades after the death of Édouard Manet, the aspects, however, maximized in it already presented themselves in an implicit or virtual way in the impressionist party of privilege atmospheric data, rather than the resistance of things.[iii]

In this sense, to take Claude Monet as the exponent of impressionism[iv] and the absolutization of the immediacy of sensation as the touchstone of impressionism, the water lilies can be considered as a consequent unfolding of the original premises.

In summary, the impressionist assumption, drawn from empiricist positions, that the sensation in its immediacy signaled the existence of a unity prior to the subject-object split, founded a way of painting aimed at the dissolution of all limits, resistance or otherness, with the expectation of reuniting, through the compensation of aesthetic practice, the opposition between subject and object.

The ratification of the classic principle of pictorial unity, in Claude Monet's works, corroborated, on the specific level of the work as an object of aesthetic contemplation, the belief in the unity of the system in which subject and object would supposedly participate. In addition to sanctioning the enthronement of Impressionism as an emblematic style of belle époque, and the cornerstone of collections and collections being formed in the then emerging North American economy,[v] such a belief signaled the regressive ideological tenor and the restorative and compensatory aesthetics of Impressionism.


Currents and countercurrents

In his time, Édouard Manet acted as a kind of encourager and reference for young impressionist painters, but he did not participate in the movement for that reason. Distinguished by young people, he was nevertheless preceded by them in terms of public acceptance of his work which, characterized as provocative, continued to face hostility even after the public recognition of the Impressionists.[vi] Calude Monet reciprocated the support received from Édouard Manet at the beginning of his career, by leading a campaign, after his death, so that Olympia (1863) was incorporated into the official collection of the Louvre.

Affinities and circumstances led one and the other to work side by side. Édouard Manet represented on certain canvases the younger colleague at work outdoors and also portrayed his family. If Édouard Manet captured and studied Claude Monet's activity, converting it into a motif, from the impressionist's point of view, such interest was not reciprocated. That is to say, the affective parallelism and parallelism of activities apparently carried out in common did not translate into similar pictorial conceptions. And it is a known fact that Édouard Manet, in life, never accepted to participate in an impressionist exhibition, that is, to have his painting confused with that current. What, however discreet, did such discrepancies reveal?

From an aesthetic point of view, if Édouard Manet's anti-normative and pro-spontaneity position, privileging the perspective of sensation, served as a platform for the emergence of the impressionists – who, like Manet, were eager for “authenticity” and “originality”, outside of academic standards –, on the other hand, there was a difference around some guidelines or values ​​adopted by the Impressionists, independently of Édouard Manet.

The latter rejected any assumption of infinity or dissolution of the limits of things and did not accept the classical dogma of pictorial unity. Among Édouard Manet's works that constituted perfect examples of such a perspective – materialist and realist –, there are some that, in the course of their production, included some circumstantial relationship with Claude Monet. However, while in Monet there was a growing tendency towards the chromatic dissolution of forms, in Édouard Manet, in turn, even works that were thematically close to Impressionism (river scenes, for example) powerfully emphasized distinctive elements operating as dividing marks – whether from the point of view of chromatic view, or the verticalizing effect of certain lines – like, for example, the profile of masts on ships, carving the sky and the unity of the canvas.[vii]

Furthermore, in Claude Monet Peignant in his Atelier/ Monet Sur Son Bateau [CM in his Atelier/ M. in His Boat] (Claude Monet Painting in his Studio Boat [Die Barke], 1874, oil on canvas, 82,7 x 105 cm, Munich, Neue Pinakothek), Édouard Manet represented in an almost emblematic way – as if he were refuting Claude Monet – figures of factory chimneys, in the background, in a direction different from that towards which the impressionist was facing. Two of the chimneys, at least, appear to be emitting powerful jets of soot, represented by Édouard Manet by the dirty yellow that stands out – and absolutely does not dissolve – in the blue of the sky.

In short, such works by Édouard Manet were dissociated from impressionism by well-marked characteristics: (a) priority given to the study of situations or human types, instead of landscapes, which were characterized in a secondary way, and as denaturalized objects; (b) closed and short framing, according to the realist tradition; (c) refusal of tonality, as well as any other form of chromatic or atmospheric unification; (d) emphatic use of repeated or almost serialized brushstrokes, as a way of determining each body.


Around the back and forth of the brushes

This is not the place to discuss the first three characteristics that Manet inherited, to a large extent, from preceding realism. As for Manet's fourth mark of distinction in relation to impressionism, in addition to the untimeliness that he sought to manifest in the face of the sensation of the ephemeral, the way in which the brush was used in the course of Manet's work also came to denote ordered aspects, such as the compass of an oar. Thus, at times, it even implied a methodical aspect, that is, a step towards the regime of serial brushstrokes, which Cézanne would later adopt.

One of the first manifestations in this sense consisted of the etching carried out by Manet in 1871 during the siege of Paris by Prussian troops, La Queue Devant la Boucherie [The Queue in front of the Butcher Shop] (Queue at the Butcher Shop/ Line in Front of the Butcher Shop, 1870-1, metal engraving, 16,9 x 14,7 cm, Baltimore, Museum of Art), in which the contrast between the uniform features constituting each body – but strongly divergent between one physical mass and another – evoked the Dramatic heightening of tensions in the besieged and famine-stricken city after three months of military siege. In this case, in addition to its narrative significance, the procedure clearly assumed the fundamental task of structuring the composition.

The dual role – semantic or narrative and structural – of the stroke and the brushstroke would be accentuated in the following years. From the semantic point of view, the use of brushstrokes as a way of determining volumes, instead of traditional artifices (gradation of tones, chiaroscuro or perspective effects), occurred through the marked contrast of the direction of the brushstrokes referring to each specific body , compared to those referring to neighboring bodies. The divergence of the vector axes of the brushstrokes, which suggested diagrammatic representations of lines of force, alluded to resistance and friction, in short, to the game of reciprocal actions and reactions that is characteristic of interactions between material things. Therefore, such bodily determinations (by strokes or brushstrokes) located – as the repulsion of masses or energies – the differences between one body and another.


The Lesson of Resistance

From a structural point of view, resorting to the line or brush stroke to define the mass according to the limits of each body, introduced a discontinuity into the composition that referred to the specific differences between one body and the other. This fragmentation – whose meaning was materialist – also diverged from the character of impressionist poetics, as a metaphor or allegorical vehicle of Claude Monet's monist and pantheistic (and narcissistic, one would say) ideas. In addition, the discontinuity – which introduced the exposition of the way the painting was made – highlighted the opaque and material content of the language and suspended all belief in the immediacy of the aesthetic sensation of the painter, as well as that of the observer.

In other words, the structural function, for the composition, of the discontinuity of brushstrokes also alluded to the activity of the subject's immanent consciousness, not only in painting, but in the representation of the phenomenon as reality. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Degas (1834-1917) and the pre-Cubist Picasso (1881-1973) would later follow and develop Édouard Manet's critical lesson.

Édouard Manet's adoption of these distinctive procedures in oils seems to have been expressly and progressively accentuated after the formation of the Impressionist movement. It is a case of considering, if it was not a way of defining the dividing line between realism – materialist, discontinuous and critical – of Édouard Manet and the other realism (with impressionist roots), permeated by monism and idealism and, ultimately, , uncritical?

As for Édouard Manet, the fact is that, in addition to the examples (cited above) of works that were all contemporary with the rise of impressionism, [viii] In the following years, one can distinguish in the progress and arrangement of the brushstrokes on several of the painter's canvases, both an inventive and methodical impetus and greater productive vigor, as well as an explicit and intensified reflexivity.[ix] Thus, in these signs, not only Édouard Manet's difference and response to impressionism emerge, but also a gain in the critical and materialist economy of realistic painting. In fact, from there – that is, directly from the critical dialectic set up by Édouard Manet in response to impressionism – certain practices of Cézanne and Van Gogh will come.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/HMBS).

Excerpt from the original version (in Portuguese) of chap. 9, “Painting as a work-form”, from the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Lausanne, Infolio (2023, prim. semester, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).



[I] Julius Meier-Graefe, Manet und der Impressionismus [Manet and Impressionism] (1897-8, no other reference found). This work was followed, six years later, by another, more ambitious one, which resumed the same reading of Manet, this time intending to systematize the emergence of modern art: Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst: Ein Beitrag zur modernen Ästhetik [History of the Development of Modern Art: A Contribution to Modern Aesthetics], 3 vols., Stuttgart, 1904; logo translated into English: Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics, trans. Florence Simmonds and George W. Chrystal, 2 vols., London, 1908]. Meier-Graefe was a dealer and commercial representative for German galleries in Paris, as well as the author of novels. He was the first historian to narratively apply Konrad Fiedler's theory of “pure visibility” to the study of art, dissociating the latter from any semantic function.

[ii] See “Regicide Returns”, the earth is round, 08.04.2022, (chapter 6, of the book referred to at the end).

[iii] For a detailed description and discussion of the sense of limitlessness that pervades the series, see L. Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with XNUMXth Century Art, trans. Célia Euvaldo, São Paulo, Cosac Naify, 2008, pp. 289-93.

[iv] See Meyer SCHAPIRO, Impressionism/ Reflections and Perceptions [Impressionism/ Reflections and Perceptions], New York, George Braziller, 1997, pp. 179-205.

[v] See Paul Hayes TUCKER, “Monet and the bourgeois dream: Argenteuil and the modern landscape [M. and the Bourgeois Dream: Argenteuil and the Modern Landscape]”, in Benjamin HD BUCHLOH, Serge GUILBAUT and David SOLKIN, Modernism and Modernity/ The Vancouver Conference Papers, Halifax (Nova Scotia), The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983, pp. 21-41; see also PH TUCKER,  Monet at Argenteuil [M. in Argenteuil], New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1982; ditto, with SHACKELFORD, GTM and Stevens, MA, exh. cat., Monet in the 20sth Century [M. in the 20th Century] (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 20.09 – 27.12.1998; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23.01 – 18.04.1999).; see also Michael LEJA, “The Monet revival and New York School abstraction,” in Idem, pp. 98-108, pp. 291-3 (notes).

[vi] See Michael FRIED, Manet's Modernism or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 3-6.

[vii] See, for example, from Manet: La Seine à Argenteuil [The Seine at Argenteuil] (The Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, London, Courtauld Gallery); La Famille Monet in the Garden [The M. Family in the Garden] (The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil, 1874, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Claude Monet Peignant in his Atelier/ Monet Sur Son Bateau [CM in his Atelier/ M. in His Boat] (Claude Monet Painting in his Studio Boat [Die Barke], 1874, Munich, Neue Pinakothek). For other contrasts between the two painters, see also Manet: Portrait of Madame Edouard Manet on a Canapé Bleu Portrait of Mrs. Manet on a Blue Settee] (1874, Paris, Musée d'Orsay); By boat [In the boat] (In the Boat, 1874, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Argenteuil (1874, Tournai, Giraudon, Musee des Beaux-Arts); Le Grand Canal à Venise [The Grand Canal in Venice] (The Grand Canal, Venice, 1875, Shelburne, Vermont, Shelburne Museum).

[viii] Namely, from Manet: La Seine à Argenteuil (The Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, op. cit.); Claude Monet Peignant dans son Atelier/ Monet sur son Bateau (Claude Monet Painting in his Studio Boat [Die Barke], 1874, op. cit.); La Famille Monet in the Garden (The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil, 1874, op. cit.); By boat (In the Boat, 1874, op. cit.); Argenteuil (1874, op. cit.)

[ix] See, by the way, the following paintings by Manet: Le Grand Canal à Venise (The Grand Canal, Venice, 1875, op. cit.); La Rue Mosnier aux Paveurs [The Paving Workers on Mosnier Street] (Road men in the Rue Mosnier, 1878, oil on canvas, 63,5 x 80 cm, Cambridge, col. privately, The Fitzwilliam Museum); Promenade: Portrait de Madame Gamby dans le Jardin de l'Artist à Bellevue [Ride: Portrait of Mrs. Gamby in the Artist's Garden in Bellevue] (The Walk, ca. 1879, oil on canvas, 92,7 x 69,7 cm, Upperville, Virginia, col. Paul Mellon); Moore's portrait [Portrait of Moore] (George Moore at the Cafe, 1879, oil on canvas, 65,4 x 81,3 cm, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art); La Femme au Chat [The Woman with a Cat] (Woman with a Cat/Portrait of Mme. Manet, ca. 1880, oil on canvas, 92,1 x 73 cm, London, The Tate Gallery). For more details concerning the issues of activity and Manet's relationship with the Impressionists, see Françoise CACHIN, Manet, New York, Konecky & Konecky, 1991, pp. 56-7, 100-1, 112-21.


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