A few thoughts inspired by Manet

note: I have read selectively with my own ideas in mind, it is ideas and thoughts i have gathered from this book for application to my own practice. I have not performed a comprehensive study, ideas that follow are based on my own gleanings and summaries of authors ideas, used as a platform to respond to within my own work.

An impressionist painter that stuck out for me when researching this years project was Edouard Manet. Manet received a lot of flak for his work in his time, it was suggested that he lacked skill as a portrait painter “rendering his figures with indifference and a cold lack of humanity” (Gazette des beaux-arts). Theophile Thore said Manet “sometimes bestows even more importance on a bouquet of flowers than on a woman’s face.” People were confused as to why he would paint a basket in beautiful detail a riot of colour that make it the focal point. While leaving the figures more somberly decorated as in the portrait of his parents (Portrait of M. and Mme, 1860). The ribbon and the basket are the bright notes of colour in the painting and tie the two figures together. Manet had multiple reasons for doing this but the one that struck me was the use of the basket, as a real world object that placed the painting firmly in the real world. Manet grew to fame painting still life’s, one book mentioned a work “the Luncheon” on the table there is a coffee, oysters and half peeled lemon. A fairly odd combination, the writer Eliza E. Rathbone goes on to suggest that Manet “invites the writer to find meaning in them.” In this way making his works stand out, these ideas can be applied to his works with figures. Going back to the portrait of his parents, the basket is the bright spot in the painting given detail and colour. The inevitable question of why Manet may have done this allows the work to step away from being just another portrait.

To me it makes the work more about the event, the action of painting posed sitter, the time taken. Less about the figures and more about the relationship between the sitters and the objects in the work. I dont know how Manet went about making this painting or what his intentions were but with regard to my own work, what i found most interesting was the way in which Manet has divvied out importance gives me the impression that these figures and objects shared physical space. That this work is a record of an event, a moment in time in which actual people interacted with real everyday objects, the work was planned the people organized, what they would hold, how the would pose, all devised and carried out to create a painting. In this way it seems honest, the painting is rooted in the real world and steps away from any kind of illusory representation. Abandoning the quest to create a representation of the individuals personalities or there relationship. Opening up in its stead a line of questioning, what are we looking at? which if pursued brings the viewer to a place of tangible reality. In so doing landing inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) on to a truthful representation of that moment and those people.

This truthfulness is seen in his other portraits, like the the one of Theodore Duret (1868) in which we see Duret’s full length figure is depicted not in the real world but in a painted space surrounded in light and air. The figure is removed from reality, placed within a artificial space. There is a nice interplay between such a setting and the basic everyday objects within it. Aided by the strange combination and positioning of objects. The still life is so staged (which of course they are) and pretty bizarre stacked next to the full length figure. Though this is a portrait i feel like the work is talking about painting more than Duret. Part of the strangeness is generated by the lemon balancing on top of a glass, this is a reference to spanish master Diego Valazquez (Two Young Men Eating at a Humble Table, 1616). Who Manet studied and respected, when you compare the paintings there are clear similarities in the rich tones and contrast, with a clear resounding note of colour that catches the eye. In Valazquez case the orange on top of the jug, in Manets the lemon is jokingly placed on top of a glass. Though similar to Valazquez orange the lemon thus treated is much more than a note of colour. To me Manet’s painting is commenting on still life’s and how the elements are placed to create an aesthetic composition. The placement emphasizes (though if this was his intention i have no idea) that the objects have been intentionally arranged and placed in the painting. Its not real, its a generated representation and designed to talk about something. Just as the space is not real and has been created for a purpose. In this case a spontaneous assemblage referencing Valazquez, Dutch still life painting (the half peeled lemon a common motif) and also represents Duret (apparently his family was into cognac, lemon/bottles etc.).

Portrait of Emile Zola is filled up with objects and images that represent there relationship and shared ideas. The painting is not based on a real space (is was done through multiple sittings in Manets studio), but a constructed space that represents interactions between Manet and Zola.“Manet gave life to the inanimate, imbuing objects in his own work with specific reference ro contemporary events and style.” This brings his work into the present as with the basket in the portrait of his parents. By “Situating the subject in an invented space, a construct based on particular pictorial references as well as on concepts of composition that relate specifically to the sitter and to the artist and the sitters shared discussions about art.” Which is quite an interesting notion with regard to representation. Rathbone suggest Manet developed this approach in response to the invention of photography, showing the inherent possibilities found in painting that were not available in photography. At least until photoshop..