Brush strokes of genius from Manet

Once-derided painter's brilliance is on display in a Paris exhibition

From the Edouard Manet retrospective: “Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama’’ was inspired by newspaper accounts of a Civil War duel. From the Edouard Manet retrospective: “Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama’’ was inspired by newspaper accounts of a Civil War duel. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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PARIS — Slipshod, careless, haphazard: This is how Édouard Manet’s more generous critics saw his endeavors during his lifetime. The public, when it wasn’t laughing, mostly concurred. And as a result, this most urbane and ambitious of painters, the son of a senior Parisian judge, was subject to a quarter century of the most discouraging ridicule.

Manet never relented, never compromised. And in the end, of course, so many of the qualities that were held against him by his peers are the very ones we esteem so highly now.

Even so, there remains something knotty and perplexing about Manet, who is the subject of a retrospective — the first since 1983 — at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

To 21st-century eyes, Manet’s way with paint seems more ravishing than ever. He used rich blacks to set off an otherwise light palette, nonchalantly disregarding intermediary tones. There was something sensual but also violent in this nonchalance, as if one way of thinking of love were as a glancing blow.

Edgar Degas, for one, was impressed by the ease with which Manet, “whose eye and hand are certainty itself,’’ committed his feelings and impressions to canvas. “Damned Manet!’’ he once complained to his English protégé Walter Sickert. “Everything he does he always hits off straight away, while I take endless pains and never get it right.’’

Manet’s brush strokes epitomize what the Italians called “sprezzatura’’ — a kind of studied effortlessness. They conjure a dream of erotic ease, a smooth and unimpeded sensuous delight in the world.

His most astonishing passages often strike the nervous system independently of the compositions to which they belong: I’m thinking of the naked model’s satin slipper in “Olympia,’’ for instance, the outsize leather belt in “Boy With a Sword,’’ or the dead man’s peony-pink sash in “The Dead Toreador.’’

And yet what makes Manet such a conundrum — and ultimately so much more than just a ravishing painter — is that his sensuous response to life was forever hitting snags. His paintings caress you one moment; they hesitate and get stuck the next.

Rather than relaxing into their own suavity, they are constantly rubbing up against the abrasions of thought, the challenge of consciousness, the frictions of social and political life. Seeing so many of his works hanging together is like attending a splendid Dionysian party, and spending half the night chatting with awkward eccentrics. It’s disconcerting, but the party is made the more memorable for it.

You feel the awkwardness in, for instance, “The Balcony,’’ a picture that was loathed and ridiculed at the time, but which to our eyes is magnificently fresh and strong, and seems to point straight in the direction of Matisse.

Give it more than a glance, however, and the whole painting seems to have a cloak of artifice thrown over it. Inexplicably, the three subjects (four, if you count the background figure holding a tray) gaze in different directions. Bunched together, they nevertheless seem completely dissociated. The result is a subtle disquiet that doesn’t so much steal from the picture as add layers of fascination.

Similar oddities recur throughout Manet’s oeuvre. One grows to love him for it. But it’s easy to see why his contemporaries were dismayed.

The Musee d’Orsay show is not perfect. It was organized in relative haste, and many of Manet’s greatest works are missing. You won’t see “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,’’ “Woman With a Parrot,’’ “Le Bon Bock,’’ “Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume,’’ “The Street Musicians,’’ “The Railway’’ or “Repose,’’ to name but a few.

And yet there’s still no shortage of masterpieces. It’s very hard to complain about an exhibition that contains “Olympia,’’ “The Luncheon on the Grass,’’ “The Fifer,’’ “Boy With a Sword,’’ “Chez le Père Lathuille,’’ and “The Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama.’’

The curator, Stéphane Guégan, has made an effort to emphasize Manet’s later, more Impressionistic works, at the expense of many of his earlier masterpieces (it’s more a question of weight than of exclusion). Guégan also draws our attention to a few previously overlooked facets of Manet’s work, including his brief but fruitful foray into religious imagery.

This reached a pitch of intensity in 1864-65, when Manet painted a praying Franciscan friar (the painting is in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) and two pictures of Christ.

The latter were attempts to paint Christian imagery in a modern manner, without sentimentality or mystification. They were seen by critics at the time as attempts to carry out the program of Ernest Renan, whose controversial book, “The Life of Jesus,’’ sought to address Jesus as a historical figure, a man like any other.

All this is interesting, because, at the time, Manet was frequently being compared to Gustave Courbet, the realist firebrand who clearly felt competitive with the younger Manet. Courbet had boasted that he would never paint anything he had not seen with his own eyes. (“Have you ever seen an angel?’’ he asked one friend. “Well, neither have I. The first time you do see one, be sure to let me know.’’)

Manet’s decision to paint two angels with fabulous blue wings in “The Dead Christ and the Angels,’’ may have been a retort to Courbet. More important, it was a way for Manet to carve out new territory for realism.

Manet believed in painting what he saw, but he was not dogmatic about it. He refused to shut out whole spheres of experience — and that included religious experience. He was too urbane, too curious, too skeptical, and too witty to buy into Courbet’s ferocious literalism.

Curiosity was at the core of Manet’s sensibility. A lot of his impulses were journalistic. Consider his calculatedly deadpan treatment of the “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian,’’ for instance, or his marvelous “Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama.’’ The latter was inspired by newspaper accounts of a Civil War duel, which took place off the coast of northern France. It shows a pilot boat advancing toward some sailors clinging to a spar and, some distance off, the smoking body of the “Alabama’’ sinking by her stern. The victorious ship, the ironclad Kearsarge, is almost entirely obscured by smoke in the background.

That touch is typical of Manet: Rather than give us what we might all expect from a large-scale painting of a naval battle, he stresses the fog of war, and the necessarily obscure viewpoint of eyewitnesses watching from distant cliffs.

What steals the show in this painting — one of Manet’s greatest — is the sea itself. And this is also typical: Manet’s true delight is in color and brush stroke — here, producing a rich green layered with blue and flecked with rumbling blacks and whites. Like those blue angel’s wings, it’s wonderful precisely because it teeters on the edge of artificiality.

Many of the same models reappear throughout Manet’s oeuvre. His favorites were Victorine Meurent (the star of “Olympia,’’ “The Luncheon on the Grass,’’ as well as two paintings sent to Paris by the Museum of Fine Arts); his wife’s son, Leon (who may or may not have been his own son); and the painter Berthe Morisot (who ended up marrying his brother).

In the paintings of all three, Manet’s fidelity to appearances is evident. And yet these paintings also revel in role-playing. In subtle ways, they acknowledge the artifice of posing. This profoundly affects how we see them. The subjects acquire double identities: They’re at once fictional characters and actual people.

Rather than detracting from the force and immediacy of their presence, this doubleness reinforces it, adds layers of beguilement.

Here, and elsewhere, we get a sense of Manet watching, and very often second-guessing, what he is doing, almost “overhearing himself’’ in the way that Shakespeare’s characters often do (an observation made by Carol Armstrong in the catalog).

Unlike his friend, Degas, whose pictures imply a kind of mastery or control over the subjects he depicted, Manet’s pictures can confuse us by seeming to surrender that mastery. There’s a feeling at times of “letting go,’’ which is easy to mistake for ineptitude.

It was not (or if it was, it scarcely matters). It was rather a function of Manet’s temperament coming through.

“Shall we say,’’ wrote Hector de Callias, in a review of the Salon of 1864, “that Manet, for all his shortcomings, is nevertheless a painter whose temperament is revealed in every brushstroke?’’

Callias went on to offer faint praise. But, addressed to a man like Manet, that first observation was the highest possible compliment.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

MANET: The Man Who Invented Modern Art At: Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Through July 3.