“Manet and Modern Beauty” Graces the Getty Museum in Los Angeles

The timing of Fall Break could not have been better! As soon as I arrived home in LA, I attended the newest show at the J. Paul Getty Museum: “Manet and Modern Beauty.” The show had recently been at SAIC in Chicago and moved to the Getty this fall, opening on October 8.   

The show is a large and unique collection of the realist master’s work. The stunning exhibit spans the last years of his life, primarily the late 1870’s through the early 1880’s, just before his death in 1883. The show’s collection of Manet’s later work displays the culmination of his previously developed style, one that he cultivated throughout his career. Manet, who was called the “painter of modern life” by his friend and colleague Charles Baudelaire, is recognized as one of the founders of modern painting. While Manet was affiliated with the Impressionist group, his work was a precursor. Despite his friendship with Impressionist painters and a similar looser style and use of bright color, Manet often chose to submit work to the official Salon instead of the Impressionist Exhibitions, reaching a larger public audience.  

Boating by Édouard Manet. Photograph courtesy of the author

The expansive show contains six sections of Manet’s work: modern life, portraiture, pastels, the Four Seasons Project, works at Bellevue, and “flowers, fruit, and gardens.” Manet’s detailed knowledge of how fashion related to modern life and society stands out as a pertinent theme throughout the show.

Legs under Table by Édouard Manet. Photograph courtesy of the author.

As a realist artist, Manet observed modern life, and his social scenes and portraits reflect the changes and modernization of Parisian social life. His painting “Boating” is full of light and color, reflecting Manet’s involvement with the Impressionists. It also shows the rise of leisure in the middle classes in Paris and the surrounding suburbs in the late 1870’s. Further, the depiction of the stylish young couple, dressed for a river outing, demonstrates Manet’s extensive knowledge of contemporary fashion.  The show also includes many café scenes. Life in caberts or cafés saturated all classes of Parisian society. Watching a show or having a drink out in public rooted as a large aspect of Parisian socializing. The paintings, including “Woman Serving Beer” are wonderful depictions of modern life. The woman serving beer looks directly out of the canvas, as if the viewer is a customer. The men are out at a café listening to a woman singing. I loved a playful sketch of a pair of legs under a table at a café. The sketch, again, shows an attention to fashion and detail in the woman’s black accessorized hat, black ruffled coat, and white lace collar.  This attention to the role of contemporary clothing shows that Manet was observing the modern individual. The culmination of modern life is well-depicted in the show. There are also the inclusions of portraits of prominent social figures, including a popular opera singer, Émile Ambre and Proust, who ended up taking over the running of the Salon. Many of the portraits are of Manet’s friends or family. Many became collectors and his supporters. Manet did not take money for his portraits of close friends, showing that they were for his own artistic development. 

Woman Reading by Édouard Manet. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Manet’s portraits show an attention to modern life and a modernization of the traditional style of Portraiture. This is seen in his portrait of Proust, which is modern in its fashion, cropped viewpoint, and well-tailored suit. One of my personal favorite paintings is a sketchy portrait with loose strokes, depicting a woman reading the newspaper in an outside café. Knowing she is in public, the woman wears a fashionable hat and coat and has put on a smattering of makeup. I am intrigued by the stark rouge that defines the line of her lip, a bold line without any additional modeling and echoes the flowers behind her. The painting is also playful, as a beer teeters on the table, halfway in the frame on the left side. This also shows the independence of the modern woman, reading by herself at a café outside. I was drawn to this painting because of its light floral colors and loose brushstrokes.  I was also drawn by the seeming independence of the woman as she sits unescorted outside at a cafe, reading and drinking all by herself. By reading the newspaper, in particular, she is further demonstrating her independence. Many of these portraits, even the ones that were painted outside, however, were painted inside Manet’s studio. He used his own landscape paintings as background to give the illusion of outside. This separates Manet from impressionists who most often painted outdoors.

Manet made clear that art mediums have no gender distinction.The show has a small collection of Manet’s pastels which he began using for convenience as he aged. The show explained that pastel was commonly seen as a more feminine medium, equating the powdery-packed stubs of color to lady’s powdered makeup. However, Manet and Modern Beauty contained fashionable portraits of males done by Manet in pastel. 

Autumn by Édouard Manet. Photograph courtesy of the author

Pastel is unique because it requires no water or oil medium to mix and can be applied directly to paper.  Among the most outstanding pastels are a bather and a nude. Both demonstrate Manet’s social and artistic connection to Degas, who was known for this subject matter. “Spring,” which is used as the main image and poster for the show, was originally conceived as part of a series by Manet. He had planned to paint depictions of all four seasons in new, creative ways. Unfortunately, he only completed “Spring” and “Autumn.” While depicting the seasons is traditional in subject matter, notably done by early Renaissance master Botticelli, this show noted that Manet’s depictions were different. Instead of noting the change in season with allegory, Manet did so with contemporary fashion and flowers. One of my favorite works was “Autumn.” This painting shows a woman’s portrait in profile. She wears a thick, fur-lined coat. She is placed in front of with a turquoise floral background with chrysanthemums which was  based off of the fabric from a silk Japanese robe belonging to Manet’s friend Proust, whose portrait was noted earlier. The references to contemporary fashion as a statement of the seasons changing. It embraces the way society was moving towards modernity with the rise of department stores. I am particularly drawn to the contrast of the bright background and the use of fabric and pattern of Japanese silk as a motif for the background and the fashion of the season.

The show then wound around a corner to show watercolors and letters from Manet’s time in Bellevue, outside Paris. Manet went to Bellevue to rest and undergo a series of bathing spa treatments for stiffness and pain in his leg, which had been ailing him. The letters Manet wrote to his friends and family are decorated with water color or pen sketches of flowers and animals. A friend and fellow artist even received his letter with a one lovely, perfectly painted brown watering can standing among delicate green grasses. Manet claimed that creating these small but beautiful pictures lightened his spirits. These pictures represent Manet’s mastery with watercolor. Manet painted directly onto his small sheets of paper. Upon entering this room a low glass case contains a small watercolor set that belonged to Manet. Even his dirty, delicate brushes lie nestled inside the metal paintbox. The letters and set of paints bring a softness and humanity to the genius, allowing the viewer to feel closer to the artist.  

The extensive show has one last surprise. Just when I thought the exhibition was over, I turned a dark corner to find one large final room. Although his health was declining, Manet’s last works focus on the extraordinary magnificence of living things. This final room contains still lives of fruits and flowers as well as garden scenes from Manet’s final two years of life. While he rested at Versailles and Rueil outside Paris, he missed his friends and the swirl of Parisian life. Almost totally paralyzed in his left leg, Manet could no longer attend cafes and observe the modern life around him. Instead, he applied his modern painting principles to the gardens that surrounded him and the flowers brought to him by friends. Although still life painting had fallen out of favor, Manet ignored trends and fads in painting and raised still life painting to new levels. For example, his brushwork with crystal vases and water demonstrate understanding of paint, light, and the connection between the two. This last room shows the final artistic genius of Manet as well as highlights his gentlemanly character (most of these paintings were never sold but rather given as  gifts to friends, collectors, and even in one instance, a stranger) and the importance he placed on relationships.

“Manet and Modern Beauty” brings a final culmination of  Manet’s development of artistic style and as an observer of modern life. This show stands out for how it blends and connects Manet’s humanity and his confident, artistic genius as his life came to a close.

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