Through Modern Eyes

Manet's still lifes illustrate -- in patches of pure color -- the theories about art for which he was once so reviled.

January 28, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Edouard Manet was the first modern artist to endure the crushing weight of misunderstanding, ridicule and scorn that so often attends the appearance of anything new in art.

Today, almost 150 years after the first public exhibit of "Dejeuner sur l'herbe," Manet's famous painting of a nude woman picnicking on the grass with two clothed male companions, his art still seems strikingly modern, though no one is scandalized by it anymore. The passage of time has made Manet seem less strange than he actually is -- a development the artist himself foresaw.

"How fortunate are those who will live a century from now," he once predicted. "The organs of their vision will be more developed than ours. They will see better."

And indeed, there's a certain comforting familiarity about "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings," the spring show at the Walters Art Museum that opens today and is expected to be one of the most popular shows of the season. Manet's artful arrangements of flowers, fruit and food were, even in his own time, the one aspect of his work that his contemporaries could admire unreservedly.

The Walters show brings together 58 of the artist's still lifes, including 39 oil paintings plus works on paper in various media. These surpassingly lovely works, presented in roughly chronological order in the museum's second-floor gallery, express in purest form Manet's ideas about color that inspired the younger artists in his circle who later became known as the Impressionists.

Viewed in terms of his own biography, however, still lifes must have represented a kind of spiritual refuge for Manet. Author Beth Archer Brombert, a recent biographer of Manet, notes that the endless controversies that rained down on his "Dejeuner"-- and later on the even more daring "Olympia," with its matter-of-fact depiction of a Parisian courtesan reclining in the classical pose of a Greek goddess -- wore him out mentally and emotionally.

Contemporary critics denounced him as a "recidivist of the monstrous and the immoral," a "brute who paints green women with dish brushes." One reviewer bluntly warned young girls and pregnant women to "flee this spectacle."

No wonder the artist became dejected.

"The attacks directed against me broke in me the mainspring of life," he later recalled. "No one knows what it is to be constantly insulted. It disheartens you and undoes you."

The first great series of still lifes from Manet's brush appeared in the mid-1860s, just after his name had become synonymous with everything the French public considered ugly and depraved in art.

Then again, toward the end of his life, in the early 1880s, when syphilitic paralysis made it impossible for him to walk

and sapped him physically and spiritually, he once more turned to still lifes to express his innermost feelings, Brombert says.

His last canvases are a solemn elegy of floral motifs that reflect both a sensual affirmation of life and the painter's final meditations on its all-too-brief transit.

Manet never swayed from his commitment to be an interpreter of the modern life. But at both these crucial times during his career, he retreated to the still life to recoup his energies by devoting himself entirely to what he called "purely painterly" problems.

And what energies they were, and what remarkable and diverse forms they assumed! Manet painted bowls of fruit that seem to glow with an inner light, tabletop fish and fowl and cut flowers in crystal vases that have an almost tactile immediacy. All these were traditional motifs of the genre.

But Manet went further, inserting still lifes into portraits and figure studies, sometimes in such unexpected ways they not only served as accent and counterpoint to the ostensible subjects of his paintings but actually inverted their pictorial priorities.

The artist's "Portrait of Emile Zola," for example, in which the famous novelist and critic sits surrounded by the books, furniture and prints of Manet's own studio is as much a still life with a figure as it is a figure painting with still lifes.

Or take the marvelous pictures of Manet's sister-in-law, the painter Berthe Morisot, who so often appears in his paintings with a pungent bouquet of the artist's beloved violets.

New color theories

Today we are likely to marvel at what Manet accomplished, yet still not quite understand it.

The standard explanation that Manet broke new ground by choosing subjects from his own time and by employing patches of color independently of their representational function hardly seems to justify the extreme vilification that greeted his work when it first appeared.

One great advantage of this show is that in Manet's still lifes one can see in perhaps its purest form the technical innovations that struck his contemporaries as so jarring. At the heart of Manet's art was a new conception of the use of color that differed radically from the official Salon painting of his era.

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