OK, now here’s a tough question. Who was the most important and influential of the French Impressionist painters?
And an even harder question, who is your personal favourite?
Many would pick Monet for his experiments with light, a few might even pick Renoir or Degas, but for me the greatest painter of this popular French artistic movement would have to be Manet.
He’s the perfect bridge between the old school masters and the bright, new things who formed the Impressionist circle.
It’s easy to forget that Manet was older than many of the Impressionist painters, which might account for why he never exhibited with them in their official exhibitions.
Manet has been called the ‘father of modern art’ – he looks back to the realism of Courbet and forward to the modernism of the younger generation of painters.
This week is the last chance to see the major Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, the first ever big retrospective of the artist in the UK.
I went along to see how this show stacked up against a season of big-hitting art shows in London’s galleries.
People on canvas
Manet: Portraying Life concentrates on his work as a portrait painter with studies of friends, family, and the cultural movers and shakers of the day.
The exhibition consists of more than 50 works including some of his best-known paintings from galleries across the world and private collections.
It’s a great show with sublime masterpieces and engaging portraits from early paintings of his family to his ‘status portraits’ of well-known politicians and the wealthy movers and shakers of society.
There’s some of my favourite Manet paintings and the curation is, as you’d expect, top-notch and superbly presented.
The only disappointment is the lack of three of Manet’s most important works – Olympia, Bar at the Folies-Bergere, and the full-sized Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.
But perhaps it’s no surprise that these iconic painters have not been released for the London exhibition as they are centrepieces of some of Europe’s finest galleries.
That said, it’s a great shame about the lack of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere which is normally on display down the road at London’s Courtauld Institute.
At home with Manet
But there’s plenty to admire in this extensive journey through Manet’s portraits.
Starting at the beginning of his career, the exhibition takes a thematic look at the artist’s work. It starts with Manet’s portraits of his family with numerous studies of his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff and her illegitimate son, Leon.
The painting that caught my eye was an attractive work called Boy Blowing Bubbles which has the feel and look of an Old Master such as Goya or Rembrandt.
It reminded me of the great 17th Century Dutch and Spanish painters with its realism and dark background, with a dash of Caravaggio thrown in for good measure.
This ‘art noir’ seems to me like a bridge between the old art and the new with its technical brilliance and realism mixed with looser stylistic techniques.
Manet was lucky enough to have grown up in a prosperous family – his father was a French judge and his mother had connections with the Swedish monarchy.
This meant he was able to indulge his passion for art and enabled him to travel extensively across Europe, which is reflected in his paintings.
Portraits of a lost era
Manet had many well respected friends in the Paris artistic community ranging from writers, musicians and actors to poets and painters.
This is best illustrated by his painting, Music in the Tuileries (1862), which is impressive in its composition and ambition, with more depth and complexity than on first glance.
It’s also a painting about modern living showing the Parisian artistic elite at play in the charming, urban gardens next door to the Louvre.
It’s almost a who’s who of leading artists and writers of the day with the likes of Charles Baudelaire, Jacques Offenbach, Henri Fantin-Latour and Theophile Gautier sitting alongside Manet’s own family.
This group portrait has echoes of the great Dutch masters but is also a modern study of artistic expression with its apparently casual and leisurely style.
It’s something of an exercise in artistic ‘name dropping’ in oil – and could be nicknamed ‘Manet and his mates’!
It forms the precursor to a section of the exhibition called ‘Manet’s World’ featuring well-known paintings of the artist’s cultural circle including the poet Mallarme and the writer Proust.
But it’s Manet’s large portrait of the author Emile Zola which is one of my favourite pieces. The writer stares away from our glare as he ponders art and life in his study, surrounded by Japanese prints and objets d’art so beloved by the Impressionists.
A portrait of the writer Proust looks us directly in the eye as if to catch our attention with his self assured stance. It’s reminiscent of a Velasquez painting of the Spanish royal family or nobility.
The brooding, dark background accentuates the writer’s intense gaze and there’s a sense of a man with a literary mission, someone who is one of the new cultural elite.
Another favourite work was a striking portrait of fellow Impressionist artist, Berthe Morisot, who also served as a model for Manet.
It has an almost Spanish flavour, recalling the work of Goya, and captures the essence of the female artist immaculately in broad, sweeping brush strokes.
Manet was, in common with his fellow Impressionists, keen on portraying life outdoors with urban scenes featuring parks, railways, bars and city streets.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in his beautiful painting of The Railway (1873) depicting a scene at Paris’ St Lazare station.
The scene looks in some ways conventional to modern eyes but the composition, with its iron fence flattening the surface of the canvas, was groundbreaking for its time.
It captures the essence of Impressionism and provides a slice of Parisian life in the late 1800s. Manet resided in Paris for his whole life so lived and breathed the city through his art works.
It’s a shame that there’s not more of Manet’s early masterworks which outraged the public and led to great controversy over standards of decency and artistic depiction.
There’s a smaller version of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe from the Courtauld Collection which isn’t a patch on the original, larger work in the Musee d’Orsay, but at least there’s a nod to its importance.
At the end of the exhibition I wondered how much I had learned about Manet the man rather than the artist. There’s an immaculate timeline of his life and times but little on his private passions, peccadilloes and predilections.
The fact that he died aged only 51 of syphilis suggests an inner life that we don’t get to know in this show.
All in all, there is much to be admired in this exhibition. If you don’t have time to catch it this week, why not take a trip to the film tie-in, called Manet – Portraying Life at a cinema near you from this week.
It’s part of a continuing crossover between big art exhibitions and films which seems to be catching on. Almost like a virtual art gallery – ideal for those who can’t travel to a show.
Finally, have you decided on your favourite Impressionist? I’m still sticking with Manet – modern master and father of Impressionism.
Manet: Portraying Life is at the Royal Academy in London until 14 April 2013.
Thanks to the Royal Academy for permission to use the images from the exhibition. Copyright of images – the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; the National Gallery, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery, Washington; and the Musee d’Orsay.