Manet: Father Of Modern Art

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He's one of those painters considered so influential, people don't even bother with his first name.

Looking at his work now, it's hard to imagine that Edouard Manet was ever regarded as revolutionary, but he was. His painting, "The Lunch on the Grass," scandalized the Paris art establishment. But, that was only the beginning.

Not long after Manet finished his equally provocative "Olympia," he did something that changed the course of European art. During the summer of 1864, he went to the beach.

"This whole idea of taking a vacation by the sea and swimming like this, that was new, " says Joseph Rishel, one of the curators of "Manet and the Sea," which is showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the end of May. "[It] was the beginning of the kind of tourism we take for granted, that really is an invention of the mid-19th century."

That other new invention, the railroad train, was what suddenly made beach vacations possible. Trains were a fast, cheap way to get out of the city. Manet began packing up his entire family each summer and spending a month in Boulogne or Berck, on the coast of Normandy.

"[Manet] gets to the sea on vacation, and it's as if he has a sea change," says Rishel. "Every day is Sunday. This isn't the heavy stuff, he's out on holiday. He's hanging out. This hanging out and this pleasure, this immense pleasure, that you can feel in every picture of the sea … it's fluid onto fluid. You're looking at fluids. You're painting fluids. It's a very releasing thing for an artist."

Manet loved the sea. He had intended to go into the Navy, but twice failed the entrance examinations. So, his parents allowed him to become an artist. It wasn't until he was in his 30s that he did his first painting of the sea. Manet, however, wasn't standing at the water's edge. He painted the sea in his Paris studio.

"He can't live by the rules and he's just changing them by pushing this horizon up," says Rishel.

Manet's version of what was hot news in June of 1864 was the sinking of a Confederate raider, "The Alabama," by the "USS Kearsarge," a major civil war battle fought off the coast of France. It was a hint of things to come.

Manet's sea paintings, his radical experiments in modernism, drove the critics crazy. They complained his work looked unfinished.

In the pressure cooker that was the Paris art world, in today's terms, Manet would be called fashionably edgy. He was affluent, from a prominent family and he loved women -- as his paintings demonstrate. Manet was associated with whatever was new, unconventional and controversial, like the music of Wagner.

One of his best friends was the poet Baudelaire, who challenged artists to do the unheard of then, "paint modern life," which Manet did and found himself idolized by a circle of younger painters who are now household names.

Feeding off one another were Monet, Renoir, the American painter James Whistler, Manet's sister-in-law Berthe Morisot and Manet himself.

In one of Manet's paintings of his wife and brother on the beach, an extraordinary technique can be observed. "If you look very carefully … there are little grains all through here, embedded. Little kind of pebbly things, which are sand from the beach," Rishel says. "From the beach, he is sitting out there actually painting this from life at the beach."

It is a startling thing to do in 1873.

Throughout the spring of 1874, Manet worked alongside Monet and Renoir, and then went to Venice on vacation.

Manet supported the impressionists, embraced many of their ideas, but refused to show with them. Just when it appeared that they had passed him by, he did them one better. Manet raised the bar.

One Manet painting superficially, shows journalist Henri Rochefort escaping the desert island where he has been imprisoned for opposing the French monarchy. What it's really about is the look of the water.

"He's just giving you a wall of water that he's been experimenting with for a long time now," explains Rishel. "But this is his most ferocious depiction of that. And you'll see there is a pink stroke of paint that really is the longest continuous gesture, I think, in any work of art in the 19th century."

With that great smear of color, Manet becomes, in the opinion of many art historians, the true father of modern art.

Manet died an agonizing, painful death in 1883, at the age of 51, of syphilis. At his funeral, Degas said of Manet, "He was greater than we thought."
  • Rome Neal

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