Manet: Portraying Life – Royal Academy of Arts

Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy of Arts was the last exhibition I saw on Sunday. I had originally planned to visit on Friday night a couple of weeks ago, but like so many exhibitions recently, it was sold out so I decided to book in advance for a later date.

2013 0310 Royal Academy

This is the first major exhibition in the UK dedicated to the work of Eduoard Manet (1832-1883). It focuses on his career as a portrait painter. Although I was aware of Manet before the exhibition, I always imagined him as a landscape painter, so this aspect was interesting to me.

Manet came from a wealthy family and didn’t have to live by his art, but he still sought approval from the Paris Salon, which was, however, often rejected. He used elements of the Old Masters and the new Impressionists, creating an art that was different from both with an unique style. Though photographic portraits were growing in popularity during the time in which he worked, Manet still believed that painting offered opportunities that photographs didn’t in evoking the personality of the individuals painted.

Manet painted several portraits, including pictures of his friends and family: his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and stepson, Léon, appear frequently, as do a number of studies of friends including Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel). Some of his pictures are status portraits of political or other celebrity figures; several of these are unfinished as their sitters could not offer the time that Manet required to model for them. Some of my favourite pictures are those of the writers and artists who were Manet’s friends, including Stéphane Mallarmé and Emile Zola.

My favourite Manet pictures, however, were those which included models rather than important or celebrity figures, particularly those of Victorine Meurent, who appears in the fascinating painting The Railway (1873), in which a red-haired woman gazes at the viewer while the child beside her stands facing the other way, watching the approaching steam train whose presence is indicated by a cloud of smoke. Manet’s style is modern but influenced by older painters, striking and memorable.

Manet: Portraying Life is on until the 14th of April.

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