In 1863, French public opinion was scandalized by the public appearance of Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, a painting done by the French artist Édouard Manet. The sight of a naked woman sitting in a woods with two dressed men seemed just a bit too risque even for Parisian tastes. Consequently, the painting which now hangs in the Louvre was rejected for display by the Salon de Paris jury. Nonetheless, the painting had the honor of being amongst the pictures that were displayed that year at the first edition of the Salon des refuses. Yet, just two years before this rejection by the Salon, Manet had made his public appearance when two of his pictures had been displayed at the Salon.
Manet was born at Paris on 23 January 1832 to an affluent and well-connected bourgeois family, a background that permitted him to live the comfortable life of a rich Parisian: politically a liberal republican, courteous and generous in his personal relations and free to travel as he pleased. He was encouraged to pursue painting by his uncle, Edmond Fournier, who took him to the Louvre and in 1845 encouraged him to enroll in a drawing course where he started a lifelong friendship with Antonin Proust.
Although his father, a judge, would have preferred that Manet pursued a legal career, he permitted him to follow his inclination after Manet had twice failed the examination to join the Navy. Between 1850 and 1856, Manet studied his art under the academic painter Thomas Couture whilst in his spare time he copied old masters at the Louvre.
Between 1853 and 1856, Manet traveled in Europe spending time in Holland, Germany and Italy as a result of which travels he developed a deep admiration for the Dutch portraitists, Hals and Rembrandt in particular, as well as the Venetians, especially Tintoretto. Manet also learnt from Goya and Velazquez, although he did not visit Spain until many years later in 1865. On his return from his travels, Manet opened his own studio.
The appearance of The Luncheon had a profound influence on the subsequent development of European art, providing inspiration for a group of young artists who would form the nucleus of what has come to be known as the Impressionist school: Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Bazille and Sisley, a generation of painters who were destined also to be lionized in time, derived inspiration from Manet’s bold departure from the conventional. Manet became acquainted with these young trailblazers and throughout the 1860s he presided over regular literary and artistic meetings at the Cafe Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy.
In 1865, Manet was once again in the public’s bad graces following the exhibition of his Olympia at that year’s Salon. Subjected to bitter press attacks, Manet was defended by Zola and a small group of liberal art critics. In 1867, Manet held the first of his one-man exhibitions during the Paris International Exhibition that took place in that year.
Following the Franco-Prussian war in which Manet served as an officer in the Garde Nationale, he traveled once more to Holland as a result of which he painted his Le Bon Bock after the manner of Hals. This work, which was well received, brought about that popular approval which every artist craves and, beginning from 1874, Manet abstained from Impressionist exhibitions.
Manet’s artistic aim was to set out on canvas a record of the Paris in which he lived; to capture in a spontaneous and vivid manner that restlessness which is a characteristic of all great cities, and as early as 1862, he had developed a technique that was eminently suitable for achieving his intentions. La peinture claire, as the technique is known, involves the laying on the light passages in flat areas of paint and then adding on the dark passages before the lighter pigment has had a chance to dry. Of course, the natural consequence of such technique is that high finish and, to some extent, composition are sacrificed. But these defects, if defects they are, are more than compensated for by the accuracy with which Manet noted those transitory impressions of movement that are a characteristic of groups of objects.
Unlike his friends, the Impressionists, at a later period, Manet was not overenthusiastic about rich color contrasts. His preferred mode was to record his impressions in monochrome in a manner similar to that by which photography, then in its infancy, recorded impressions. Even when he painted in color, e.g. Bar aux Folies Bergere, the colors come out in somewhat subdued fashion although the acuity of observation for which he is renowned remains always as strong as ever.