Manet and the Nude

ÉDOUARD MANET AND “THE (FEMALE) NUDE”


“The leading characteristic of our century is its historical sense.

This is why we have to confine ourselves to relating the facts.”

Gustave Flaubert, 1854

“The wind blows in the direction of science.

Despite ourselves, we are pushed toward the exact study of facts and things.”

Emile Zola, Salon of 1866

“Il faut être de son temps.”

Honoré Daumier

Unlike his predecessor, Gustave Courbet who carefully directed the critical discourse around his art, Édouard Manet was far more taciturn. When he spoke, it was in fragments, causal remarks, rarely buttressed by explanations about his paintings. Against this silence, art historians constructed many frameworks for understanding. First there is Manet the Formalist, as put forward by Clement Greenberg, as the progenitor of Modernism. Next, there was the Manet of the Marxists, put forward by writers such as T. J. Clark, followed by Manet of the feminists, such as Griselda Pollock, and then there was the Manet examined by the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. There is validity to all of these approaches, each illuminating the complex artist who ushered the modernité of his friend, Charles Baudelaire, into the world of avant-garde art. How Manet created a final rupture between the modern realists and the traditional Academy is less interesting than why. What were his strategies of attack, what were his tactics of provocation?

Manet, who was a child of privilege, born to a comfortable, even wealthy, haute bourgeois family, was typical of the rebellious son of a professional—-supported in his rebellion and cushioned in his insurrection by his father’s fortune. Manet was never a successful artist, in the sense of sales, during his lifetime. His financial independence would be crucial to his artistic independence. He could afford, quite literally, to take risks and to continue without reward. Part of the dominant class, Manet had no particular reason to destroy the bourgeois source of his position, and he never stopped vying for recognition in the Salon, always needing the rewards doled out by the State. The artist was less of a rebel than a careerist, seeking a way to get noticed among a crowded field of aspirants. The career of Gustave Courbet provided an excellent model: find your crowd of supporters among art critics and writers of the literary world, create a recognizable persona, and attract attention to your art through shock and awe. Like the career of Courbet, the paintings of Édouard Manet cannot be understood without acknowledging the power of the press and the importance of publicity and the new avenues that mass media opened up to the artist.

The Second Empire was a peaceful period, marked by intellectual cynicism and resignation, following a failed revolution. Open rebellions would fail, rebels caught in the crossfire would get crushed, so the smart move was to retreat to the safety of intellectual dissent. Literary and artistic language evolved into a subtle network of overt condemnation of the hated middle class and its self-satisfied complacency. The direct confrontation of a Courbet gave way to the visual ambiguities of a Manet. Courbet’s paintings were battering rams on the barred gates of the Academy, intended to break in and to reform the wrong-headed taste for the classical. Manet, with impeccable credentials, direct from his long tutelage under the fine academic artist, Thomas Couture, was already an insider. His task was not to storm the barricades but the find a way out of the fortress of the Academy. Manet inherited a group of literary supporters from the avant-garde, such as Emile Zola, and the ready-made role of “the Dandy,” popularized by Baudelaire. Handsome, elegant, well-dressed, and cynical man about town, Manet succeeded Courbet as the leader of the insurrectionists. But Manet was a very different kind of “Realist.”

It could be asked if Manet’s work was the Naturalism of his literary counterparts, Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. According to the critic Jules Castagnary, “…its (Naturalism) only object is to reproduce nature and lead it to its greatest power and integrity…the Naturalist school reestablishes the severed relationship between man and nature…” Far more than any other artist of his time, Manet was a link between the tradition of historical painting and the need to paint new objects in a new fashion. Less of a history painter and more than a painter of the history of painting, Manet’s representational mode was not that of copying nature but of observing human nature with a shrewd and jaundiced eye. His highly stylized subjects were presented to the viewer, and this audience—assumed to be white, male and heterosexual and urbane and wealthy—was taken into account and the male viewer was drawn visually and metaphorically into his works. Like his predecessor, Courbet, and his teacher, Thomas Couture, Manet’s work is pastiche-like in its collage approach to putting together many elements, which may or may not fit together.

This pictoral collaging of flattened units, so evident with Courbet, becomes almost a conceit with Manet. Echoing Courbet’s mockery of the rhetoric of academic poses, seen in The Bathers (1853), Manet exploited the customary practice of putting academic poses and postures together into huge history paintings, as was seen in Courture’s Romans of the Decadence (1847). Manet extended the convention of academic visual discourse to its logical extreme, by exposing its inherent artificiality. In the face of Naturalism and Realism, Manet’s works of art were about other earlier works of art, high and low, serious and commonplace, historical and current. The result was a series of anti-academic paintings that pushed the Romantic dictum of “art-for-art’s sake” to its logical conclusion, making the artistic statement that art is an artificial product, a cultural artifact that is about reality but that does not mirror reality. If art is severed from its traditional task of reflecting the world and/or being in the service of society, then art has no purpose other than an existential one: art existed for its own sake alone.

In The Rules of Art (1992), the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, made a distinction between the successive avant-gardes in Paris: the first avant-garde in of the 1830s, the original la bohème, and the second avant-garde, which engendered the collaboration between the artists and the writers, such as the partnership between Courbet and Champfleury. The last avant-garde, according to Bourdieu was the art-for-art’s-sake position, held by Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert and carried on by Édouard Manet. The difference between Courbet’s socially active art and Manet’s socially apolitical art can be summed up in the difference between Courbet the Country Bumpkin and Manet the Dandy. The Country Bumpkin was a construct in contrast to the sophisticated Parisian, while the Dandy was uninvolved, aloof, alone and apart. It is this disinterested detachment that allows the new avant-garde artist to separate himself from the “rules of art” and to forge a separate path. The contrast also explains Baudelaire’s antipathy to Courbet’s politically engaged painting, which kept art in the service of society. Baudelaire selected Constantin Guys as his “painter of modern life” for a reason—Guys was an outsider who was uninterested in the art world, without a stake in the Academic game. The poet was saying very clearly that the “painter of modern life” had to be a disinterested observer of society and could not be a participant in that society, thus privileging the alienation of the artist.

For many art historians, Manet was Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life;” but the poet, who died in 1867, did not live to see his friend become successful or at least renowned. Nevertheless, it was Manet who began to capture the essence of modernité, a quality the critic called “the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present day life…” La vie moderne was based in the city, the heart of darkness of the century, a place of anomie and indifference. Wiped clean of anecdote and symbolism and of meaning, Manet’s art becomes a synedoche, a slice of life but a very particular kind of life. Like his friend, Edgar Degas, Manet was a man about town who knew well the pleasures of the boulevards and brothels and cafés and cabarets and bars. Life in Paris had a duality and a hypocrisy: a bourgeoisie respectability on one hand and an underground, Baudelaire’s “floating existences,” of marginalized people living on the fringes of respectability or far beyond social redemption. In Manet’s art, as in Courbet’s later works, women were the main commodities of the era. Forced into prostitution by economic conditions beyond their control, women were bought and sold, everywhere available to the highest male bidder. Women, or to be more precise, the “fallen woman,” became the visual images upon which the Second Empire depicted itself as the all-consuming bourgeois male in power.

Did Manet reiterate the conditions of this male-dominated society to simply record, or to comment, or to critique, or to scandalize the male viewer? From viewing his works, it seems that the hero of modern life in the Second Empire was a man with money to spend on women, a member of the haute bourgeoisie who pursues the dubious pleasures of the demi-mondaine. The artist occupied the protected position of an observer who could slum and escape, retreating to the sanctity of the studio where his adventures could be captured. But the presence of a suffering urban proletariat in the works of Edouard Manet cannot be considered a critique. Their misery is presented as a simple accepted fact, which is ironically manipulated through the lenses of art history. The Old Musician (1862) is a pendant to Music in the Tuileries (1862), as an implied contrast between the lower and upper classes. The Old Musician borrowed from Spanish painting and from the works of the Le Nain Brothers, while Music in the Tuileries was an artist’s attempt to paint the crowd—albeit an upper class one—in the modern city. Both paintings are group portraits of urban types, but Manet’s lower class people–the ragpicker and the destitute children and the old people–were overwhelmed with allegory and appropriation, used for the artist to mock the tradition for history painting. The presence of the lower classes, displaced by Haussmann’s destruction of the Old Paris, was entirely new subject matter in the Salon. But any social comment was absorbed into elitist allusions to the history of art, appealing to the well-educated male connoisseur as a series of insider commentary.

But the pair of paintings took their place only as preludes for the seminal works of 1863, two paintings of the “modern nude,” who could only be the prostitute. The urban poor, inherently unattractive, quickly disappeared from Manet’s work, and attractive women of ill-repute emerged as his major preoccupation by the mid 1860s. These women, who could be owned by males, were presented with a specifically masculine way of looking: a proprietorial gaze, which implies unmediated and unquestioned power. As John Berger remarked, men look and women are constructed to be looked at. The only clue to Manet’s intentions as to why he painted (Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe) Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, both of 1863, is that the “nude,” by now always female, was the path to fame and fortune in the Salon. Manet is said to have signed and accepted the inevitable—-to become noticed, he had to stoop to hackneyed subjects. “It seems I must paint a nude. Very well,” he said, “I shall paint one.” The question was how to update the female nude? Manet was clear that he meant to include “…people like you see down there,” meaning that he was familiar with the people who bathed in the Seine. These would have been the urban poor who had no other recourse for cleanliness or recreation than the city’s river. Manet was also familiar with Giorgione’s Fête champêtre (1508), a country or rustic scene with a theme of humans living in harmony with nature. Apparently, Manet combined the ideal rustic scene with the actual and current way in which ordinary people used nature.

“The public will rip me to shreds but they can say what they like…” Manet said bravely. We know that after he was “ripped,” he felt considerable pain but received no sympathy from Baudelaire who was dying in Belgium and blooded by the Empire’s censors. Manet began a painting named Le Bain, which could be thought of as the beginning of his mature career. His father had died the year before (of syphilis) in 1862, freeing the son to be his own man. Updating the nude meant not only making the nude a contemporary one but also to free the nude from symbolism and metaphor and allegory. The woman most likely to have a kind of “public” nudity would be the prostitute. The strategy had to be to mask the inherent vulgarity of the prostitute and to avoid the impropriety of presenting the respectable woman by using canonical art historical examples from past times. In the painting, later renamed Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe, Manet appropriated Giorgione and Titian and Goya and Raphael and mined their art for poses, precedents and legitimacy. By filtering the nakedness of the modern woman through art history, Manet escaped the trap of Naturalism, that of passively recording reality. These paintings were artificial and arbitrary and willful in their irony and sarcasm. While Manet’s work seems satirical, the paintings were also a gamble, as if he bet everything on one throw of the dice. His goal was probably to be noticed among a sea of earnest and pornographic female nudes, disguised as goddesses.

Courbet’s success owed a great deal to the open Salon of 1848 which allowed him to summarize and end the first stage of his career and to the Salon of 1849, juried by artists, which allowed his Dinner at Ornans to be shown and awarded a second-class medal. Manet’s success would equally hinge on politics, this time on art politics. Manet had hoped to soften up the jury by preempting their judgment with a show of is new works at the Louis Martinet gallery. As would often happen, Manet’s hopes for public acceptance were dashed and the Salon jury was no better disposed towards his work. The jury for the Salon of 1863 was unusually harsh, an outcome during the censorious Second Empire, which meant that the level of rejection was nothing short of extreme. Deprived of the right to be seen and, thus of the right to earn a living, the rejected artists protested so much that the Emperor intervened and ordered a second salon, the famous Salon des Refusés of 1863. Many artists simply slunk away, not wanting to exhibit with the losers, but the more opportunistic painters, such as Manet and his friend, James Whistler, participated. The Salon des Refusés overshadowed the Salon of the Accepted Ones, and the two artists were the most scandalous painters presenting. To paraphrase Flaubert, now that Manet was attacked, he now existed in the minds of the art public, which was primed and ready to be horrified at his next offering, Olympia, another modern nude, at the Salon of 1865. “I render as simply as possible the things I see. What could be more naïve than Olympia?Manet protested, perhaps a bit disingenuously.

By layering Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe with references to two paintings by Raphael, to Giorgione’s Fête Competre, to Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, and Olympia with quotations from Titian and Goya, Manet seemed to ask why couldn’t he be allowed to do the same kind of art as his predecessors? But his art was not the same. Manet did more than Michel Foucault claimed when he remarked that the artist was the first to paint a “museum painting,” that is a painting that would be comprehensible only to the art educated public. The paintings Manet borrowed from were all set in poetic spaces, not in real time or in real places. Only Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the model for Olympia, was contemporary, a private commission, about as high-minded as Courbet’s The Sleepers. But Titian’s “Venus” was demurely distanced from the kind of provocative modernité demonstrated by Manet. Titian’s painting was a private offering to a princely patron; Manet’s paintings were public assaults, exposing the sexual pastimes of the well-heeled male, indiscretions to which the law turned a blind eye. That willed blindness was pierced by the strident gaze of Manet’s model, the high-priced courtesan watchfully regarding the male interloper, who had apparently interrupted a sexual tryst. The tactic of breaking through the “fourth wall” of the picture plane predicted the theatrical practices of Berthold Brecht—-the direct address of the actor to the audience, the refusal to accept the rules of virtual reality. By forcing the Second Empire audience to become part of its own sordid hidden lives, Manet achieved his intention to “do the nude” and to become noticed. Scandal equaled success and established Manet’s reputation as the leader of the new avant-garde, and freed him from conventional subject matter. But Modernité would not be the conflation of art history and art present, but the capture of all that was contingent and fleeting, the ephemeral drifting fragments of Paris: the next stage of Manet’s career.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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