January 2024

Painter of Modern Life:
Personal Reflections on Manet

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


This file was derived from: Edouard Manet - Olympia - Google Art Project.jpg:,
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79557212

In my many years of haunting art museums—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, et al.—my admiration of Édouard Manet, high from my very first viewing, has increased steadily. Two recent events have elevated this regard to full-blown, limitless love.

The first, occurring late in 2022, was my reading, as a volunteer first reader for the Arts Club of Washington's Marfield Prize, of Value in Art: Manet and the Slave Trade, (1) by Henry M. Sayre. Sayre's masterful study, richly illustrated, presents Manet's work in the cultural and political context of his time, France's Second Empire, and place, primarily Paris, its capital. Underneath the magnificent surfaces, exquisite images, and beautiful colors (his blacks and blues in particular capture the eye and shimmer into one's consciousness), Manet subtly but strongly criticized the political and sexual hypocrisies of his era. Like his comrades-in-arms Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire, but with a lighter touch, Manet again and again directed pointed criticism at the sexual and economic politics that limited women to marriage, prostitution, or destitution, the evils of colonialism and slavery, and bourgeois values in general. Like the Impressionists, and more powerfully, he was indeed the painter of modern life (as designated by the preeminent Manet scholar, T.J. Clark, the title of whose critical work I have borrowed for this essay).

The second and even more powerful event was my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to see the incredible exhibit Manet/Degas. Though I greatly admire Degas and enjoyed seeing his paintings and other works displayed alongside those of his "frenemy" Manet, my motivation for the excursion was to see Manet's paintings, especially his perhaps most shocking and controversial (in his day), Olympia (depicted above). This exhibit is the first time the picture has been shown in the United States. (I may have seen it on one of my trips to Paris in the 1980s, but my love for Manet was but a spark then, not to mention how much great art I feasted on). In the intervening years and in light of my encounter with Sayre's book, I have become supremely captivated with this masterpiece to the point I have written a poem
about it. (More on that below.)

From a purely artistic standpoint, the picture is a remarkable display of colors, demonstrating Manet's extreme skill with shades of black along with the near shimmer of the colors of the flowers that Olympia's servant is presenting.

Beyond the aesthetic, the painting encodes a world of commentary about social and sexual attitudes in Paris in the latter half of the 19th Century. The polished surface and beautifully balanced composition open a window on complex relationships between and among the figures in the painting, those just outside, and the viewers themselves. Olympia is, of course, the name of the central character (the model being Victorine Meurent) portrayed in the picture. Her frank and unashamed gaze at the viewer shocked the Parisian audience as many of the details in the painting indicate that she is a prostitute (the name "Olympia" itself was a term used for prostitutes). In addition, such elements as the lavish bedding, her jewels, and even the black cat (a symbol of nocturnal promiscuity) all suggest a life of unabashed sensuality.

The role of the Black servant (a model known only as Laure), is more ambiguous. The complexities of her racial and feminine position are beyond the scope of this essay, but there are a number of valuable writings on those elements by feminist and Black critics that are worth seeking out to pursue that line of analysis.

A similar and nearly equally ravishing treatment of feminine defiance of sexual shaming is found in Nana, an image of a character in two novels by Manet's friend Zola.

Courtesy of manet.org.

This painting was the cover image for my Penguin Classics edition of Zola's Nana, and the pleasurable shock of recognition I received when I rounded the corner into its gallery was one of the many amazing experiences I had in the show

However radical some of Manet's thought was, no doubt his racial attitudes were not free from the prejudices of his time. Nevertheless, he was a known anti-colonialist and opponent of slavery, which France had outlawed long prior to the creation of Olympia. Two other paintings in the Met exhibit reflect his abolitionist sympathies. The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, depicts a crucial naval battle between the U.S. Navy ship, Kearsarge and the Confederate vessel C.S.S. Alabama in June 1864 off the coast of Cherbourg, which resulted in the sinking of the Southern ship, much to the delight of the pro-Northern spectators who had gathered on the shore to witness the engagement. Manet himself was not present, but he read accounts of the battle and, wishing to celebrate the outcome, quickly painted the picture and placed it in a gallery.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

He later traveled to Boulogne to see the Kearsarge in port there, and made a lovely painting of the ship at rest in the harbor.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

These two marine images along with Nana above display Manet's great skill with blues as well as blacks.

The entire show was an almost overwhelming experience. For lovers of 19th Century painting and Impressionism, it's a feast verging on oversatiety . For reasons I noted above, I have not written about Degas, but the many works of his on display are, obviously, splendid, and I was enriched greatly by seeing them. But for me, Manet was the draw. The emotional impact of encountering many favorite paintings I had only seen in reproduction before is indescribable. And the communion with kindred spirits, old and young alike, was a near spiritual experience in itself. I staggered out of the exhibit after two hours and made my way to the cafeteria to fill my stomach as I had my soul.

The show runs until January 7, 2024. It's well worth seeing in person if possible If not, a virtual tour and other information at the museum's website are available.



(1) https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/V/bo115834914 .html


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2024 Gregory Luce
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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