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Manet and Modern Beauty
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
May 26, 2019–September 8, 2019
Getty Center, Los Angeles
October 8, 2019–January 12, 2020

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, and Gloria Groom, with Bridget Alsdorf, Carol Armstrong, Helen Burnham, Leah Lehmbeck, Devi Ormond, Catherine Schmidt Patterson, and Samuel Rodary,
Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years.
Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019.
400 pp.; 206 color and 97 b&w illus., 1 table; bibliography; index.
$65 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–1606066041

figure 1
Fig. 1, Édouard Manet, Jeanne (Spring), 1881. Oil on canvas. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

How are we to classify Manet’s last paintings? This question drives the new exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty, which ran at the Art Institute of Chicago from May 26, 2019 to September 8, 2019, and then at the Getty Center, Los Angeles from October 8, 2019 to January 12, 2020. Organized by curators Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, and Gloria Groom, Manet and Modern Beauty focuses on Manet’s production—hardly just paintings—from the mid-1870s until his death on April 30, 1883, at age fifty-one.‍[1] Consisting of approximately ninety works, the exhibition brings together some of Manet’s most celebrated canvases including Boating (1874–75), Plum Brandy (ca. 1877), and In the Conservatory (1877–79) with lesser-knowns like Eugene Pertuiset Lion Hunter (1881), and Jeanne (Spring) (1881). The last of these, Jeanne (fig. 1), tellingly, is featured particularly prominently in the exhibition and publicity.

Jeanne has only been exhibited once between the 1960s and 2014, when it entered the Getty’s collection. The organizers position it as the emblematic work of Manet’s last years, the embodiment of the types of feminine beauty, modern life, and decorative arts that to them defined Manet’s conception of modern art in the 1880s. Avoiding the cliché of the “late period,” which can connote an aging artist with diminishing powers, they term these Manet’s “last years.” More than a semantic change, this asks the viewer to reconsider these works and the established narrative of a declining Manet. They position the end of Manet’s life as a period where the effects of syphilis narrowed his world but did not diminish his ability or ambition. The exhibition enthusiastically displays the beauty of modern life as Manet experienced it in the late 1870s and early 1880s, including the cafés, fashionable parisiennes, and country gardens, as well as small still lifes and floral arrangements of his very last years. The works from these years, some famous others forgotten, exhibited together offer a convincing revision of the importance of the last half-decade of Manet’s career.

The exhibition is arranged both thematically and in a roughly chronological order. It opens with Manet’s 1879 Salon submission Boating and then traces Manet’s 1880 solo show in the offices of La Vie Moderne. From here, it progresses into a series of thematic galleries starting with gardens, then a portion of his last Salon works, haut-bourgeois parisiennes, and concludes with small-scale late works: his flowers, still lifes, drawings, watercolors, and very last oil paintings. By interweaving thematic and chronological organization, the curators are able to strike a compelling balance that echoes Manet’s lived experience. Largely putting aside narratives of Manet as the heroic, if diminished, iconoclast or the leader of a new generation of painters, the exhibition presents Manet’s last works as a coherent and powerful project.

In Chicago the first two major galleries were devoted to Manet’s 1880 solo exhibition in the office of La Vie Moderne. These feature some of Manet’s iconic paintings of modern life, including Plum Brandy and The Café-Concert (ca. 1878–79; fig. 2) as well as many of his lesser-known pastels, a new medium for Manet, and one replete with feminine and Rococo connotations. These galleries also include supplemental material including pages from La Vie Moderne (fig. 3) and a large wall of cartes de visite of Manet’s social circle (fig. 4), which display the vastness of urban Parisian life in a way that few exhibitions manage. Even familiar works such as Plum Brandy and The Café Concert are enlivened by these supplemental materials and additional works. Manet’s pastels, including Woman with a Tub (ca. 1878–79), Nude Arranging Her Hair (ca. 1878–79), The Drinker (Alphonse Maureau) (1878–79), and Young Woman in a Round Hat (ca. 1877–79), are particularly noteworthy as they convey the energy and intimacy of modern life in a manner rarely seen in Manet’s oil paintings (fig. 5).

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Fig. 2, Installation image of Manet and Modern Beauty showing Plum Brandy, ca. 1877. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Fig. 3, Installation image, from left to right: reproduction of a drawing by Fantin-Latour after his Portrait of Édouard Manet.; La Vie Moderne 2, no. 16, (April 17, 1880); La Vie Moderne 5, no. 19, (May 12, 1883); Galerie contemporaine, littéraire, artistique, 1876. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Fig. 4, Reproductions of cartes de visite of Manet’s social circle. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Fig. 5, Installation image of Woman with a Tub, 1878, Nude Arranging Her Hair, ca. 1878–79, The Drinker (Alphonse Maureau), 1878–79, and Portrait of Madame Jules Guillemet, ca. 1880. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Fig. 6, Installation image of In the Conservatory, ca. 1877–79. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Just as the viewer begins to gain a sense of Manet’s place in the urban scene, the exhibition shifts to the first largely thematic gallery, devoted to the garden (fig. 6). The works in the gallery span the period from 1876 to 1881 and thus have less of a chronological focus. Rather, as the wall label indicates, they are intended to provide a contrast to the previous galleries and convey Manet’s withdrawal from urban life as necessitated by his declining health. These works display the beauty of the gardens, but also evince a palpable sense of Manet’s boredom, unease, and solitude. The curators make clear in their introductory essay that they do not want to suggest this shift was solely a symptom of his growing affliction with syphilis. Indeed, to the contrary they argue, “to explain away the shift—of subject matter, paint handling, and even choice of medium—in Manet’s late work as a symptom of his illness or his association with demimondaines is to undermine his agency, to disregard the many choices that produced his late style” (6). This is the guiding principle of the remainder of the exhibition.

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Fig. 7, Édouard Manet’s flower paintings, including White Lilacs in a Crystal Vase, ca. 1882 and Vase with White Lilacs and Roses, 1883. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Fig. 8, Installation image of Manet and Modern Beauty showing Portrait of a Woman with a Black Fichu, ca. 1876; The Rabbit, 1881; and Morning Glories and Nasturtiums, 1881. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Fig. 9, Installation image of Manet and Modern Beauty showing Jeanne (Spring), 1881; Autumn (Méry Laurent), 1881 or 1882; and Young Woman in Riding Costume, 1882–83. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The subsequent galleries move through his Salon submissions in 1880, 1881, and 1882, a large group of portraits of parisiennes culminating with Jeanne, and then his last works, including his flower paintings (fig. 7), small drawings, watercolors, and ending on his very last completed oil painting, The House at Rueil (1882). Here, as with the earlier galleries, supplemental materials add valuable contextualization (fig. 8). The artworks in these galleries range from quick watercolors included on missives to large Salon paintings and are impressive in scale, quantity, and seriousness of purpose. These galleries convey Manet’s abiding ambition and stylistic inventiveness. The introductory essay makes this point explicitly, stating that across media these last works “articulate a never fully realized alternative version for the future of modern painting—one following the principles of ‘beauty, fashion, and happiness,’ outlined decades before by the artist’s mentor Charles Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863)”(4). This is not just an argument that Manet’s last paintings shift toward beauty as a leitmotif, but rather that fashion, femininity, and flowers are deliberate themes in his final major period and a culmination of his career.‍[2]

The curators’ assertion that Jeanne is the artist’s final and fullest expression of fashion and femininity (fig. 9) and holds a central place in Manet’s last year is one of the exhibition’s most significant contributions. In their introductory essay, they state this ambitious goal concisely, declaring, “As a representation of a social type—the parisienneJeanne exemplifies Manet’s ambitions as a modern artist who according to [Antonin] Proust, sought to memorialize his epoch by depicting the women of the Third Republic . . . Indeed, it was under the sign of fashionable femininity that the artist staked his final claim to the Baudelaire title of ‘Painter of Modern Life’” (4). These themes have received significant attention in recent years, including Carol Armstrong’s Manet Manette (2002) Helen Burnham’s work on Manet’s pastels (2007), and, of course, the major and excellent exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (2012) organized by Groom. Together with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), Manet submitted Jeanne to the Salon of 1882. This was Manet’s last Salon, and also the first (and only) time where his work enjoyed guaranteed acceptance, owing to the medal he was awarded in 1881. In an inversion of the current perception of these works’ importance, Bar was largely dismissed by critics in 1882, while Jeanne was widely praised and among the most celebrated Salon submissions of Manet’s entire career. So why has Jeanne been ignored and Bar forgotten? Seemingly, a gendered bias dismissing Jeanne and Manet’s other late paintings is the root cause. As Allan, Beeny, and Groom indicate, this bias has distorted our understanding of much of Manet’s last years, ignoring his feminine turn, downplaying his interest in fashion, and inserting the clichéd narrative of artistic decline. Jeanne is a fitting expression of modern beauty and femininity but also simply visually stunning.

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Fig. 10, Wall label from Manet and Modern Beauty, 2019. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jeanne is central to both the exhibition’s effort to reframe Manet’s last years and some of the exhibition’s weaknesses. The first and most inescapable weakness is the absence of the other painting exhibited by Manet at the Salon of 1882, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The exhibition curators claim this highlights the importance of Jeanne; however, it is hard to fully countenance this, as Bar is unquestionably the most famous image of Manet’s last years and central to major art historical discussions. Beeny and Allan, in particular, argue that the scholarly attention devoted to Bar distorts its contemporary importance. While the exhibition convincingly reappraises the importance of Jeanne, these arguments also bolster the importance of Bar as a companion and counterpoint at the Salon of 1882. Both works emphasize women and modern life, but they offer conflicting visions of the city, class, the self, and perception. As Allan himself suggests in his catalogue essay, discussed at length below, this pairing of a more traditional and a more avant-garde work typified Manet’s last Salon submissions, emphasizing the importance of Jeanne and Bar as a pair. Lending practices may have played a part in the omission of Bar, but whatever the reason, its absence is a significant missed opportunity to see Manet’s complex relationship to modern life. Tellingly, Bar is discussed extensively in the catalogue and the exhibition features a large reproduction (fig. 10) of the painting with an accompanying wall label.

Other significant works that could have suggested the countervailing interests in Manet’s last years are also omitted from the exhibition. One of the most notable is The Rue Mosnier with Flags (1878), which shows Manet’s overt engagement with the politics of post-Commune Paris. Painted in 1878, Rue Mosnier is on the cusp of the main period of the exhibition; however, as it is in the Getty’s collection, its absence seems all the more curious. While Rue Mosnier hardly supports the exhibition’s main themes of beauty, femininity, or modern pleasure, it could have offered an important counterpoint to these themes and further illustrated Manet’s engagement with the political controversies of the Third Republic.

The accompanying catalogue expands and deepens many of these main points, adding beautiful illustrations, supplemental material, and insightful contextualization. The catalogue is edited by exhibition curators Allan, Beeny, and Groom. In addition to the editors’ introduction, the catalogue contains the following essays: Allan on Manet’s Salon exhibition strategy, Burnham on the parisienne “type,” Leah Lehmbeck on Manet’s abiding interest in actresses as models, Groom on the linkages between Manet’s backgrounds and his emerging interest in decorative painting, Beeny on the importance of the eighteenth century and Rococo revival in Manet’s last years, Armstrong on the watercolors in Manet’s personal letters, Bridget Alsdorf on the shared language of Manet’s flowers and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (1857), and a technical analysis of Jeanne by Devi Ormond and Catherine Schmidt Patterson with additional assistance from Douglas MacLennan and Nathan Daly. There is also a selection of Manet’s letters assembled and introduced by Samuel Rodary, a highly detailed catalogue of the works exhibited at both venues by Allan and Beeny with assistance from Jamie Kwan, an extensive bibliography of the exhibitions, sources, and archives cited, and a detailed index, which is very much appreciated given the wide range of material covered.

The introductory essay by Allan, Beeny, and Groom aims to “reject the gendered charges of slightness, frivolity, and decline once leveled against Manet’s late production” (7). It acknowledges the debt the exhibition owes to both feminist art historians (including catalogue contributors Armstrong and Burnham) as well as the inimitable contributions of Juliet Wilson-Bareau.

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Fig. 11, Édouard Manet. In the Conservatory, ca. 1877–79. Oil on canvas. Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.

The essays develop many of the more complex topics referenced in the exhibition. Allan compellingly argues that Manet deliberately paired conservative and avant-garde paintings to counter his more vociferous critics while maintaining his status as the leader of the avant-garde. Beginning with Manet’s 1879 Salon submissions, In the Conservatory (fig. 11) and Boating, Allan uses contemporary critical responses, comparisons with other artists’ works, and Manet’s personal correspondence to establish the artist’s carefully conceived exhibition strategy. Allan identifies other conservative/avant-garde pairings: in 1880 it was Portrait of Antonin Proust and Chez le Père Lathuille; in 1881, Mr. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter and Portrait of Henri Rochefort; and in his final submission in 1882, Jeanne and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It is unfortunate, given the importance of these pairs to Allan’s argument, that almost half of them were not included in the exhibition proper, including Chez le Père Lathuille, Portrait of Henri Rochefort, and of course Bar. Allan makes a compelling case that Manet’s marked successes at the Salons from 1879 to 1882 were not incidental but rather the product of his deliberate exhibition strategy.

Also expanding on a topic introduced in the exhibition, co-curator Beeny’s essay, “Manet and the Eighteenth Century,” analyzes the Rococo revival, referencing the widely known influence of the Goncourt brothers, citations of Watteau, Chardin, Boucher, and Fragonard in Manet’s work, and the appearance of pastel as an explicitly Rococo medium. Beeny discusses Manet’s interest in the eighteenth-century subjects, found in his earliest works in the late–1850s through his final still lifes. Beeny’s scope thus encompasses more than Manet’s last years; indeed, many of her strongest points relate to early works. Some of these connections are more compelling than others. In particular, the connections to Fragonard seem somewhat less supported. Meanwhile, the influence of Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales in Manet’s pastels is well-argued, as is the broad revival in interest in the eighteenth century during the 1880s. In these last arguments, Beeny again demonstrates that Manet’s late embrace of pastels and small-scale works was not determined by his physical decline, but rather, was a deliberate choice which put him in dialogue with contemporary intellectual currents.

Groom’s “Foregrounding Manet’s Backgrounds,” which takes an easily overlooked element of Manet’s (or any artist’s) works, the backgrounds, and masterfully expands the discussion to address the feminine sphere, the interplay between modern life and studio painting, and the flatness of the canvas as both a modern and a decorative element. While other essays tend to emphasize Manet’s agency and active intent, Groom emphasizes Manet’s strategies to work around the effects of syphilis. Noting that the works exhibited at the Vie Moderne show have Impressionistic subjects but titles that avoid giving specific locations, Groom conclusively argues these are not scenes drawn from actual modern life but rather works done in Manet’s studio, replete with studio props and backgrounds that only give the illusion of cafés and dance halls. Groom suggests that Manet’s collapsing foregrounds and backgrounds turns portraits into images of modern life (74). This fusion of the public and private spheres often inverts masculine and feminine spaces and demonstrates Manet’s developing interest in the arts décoratifs.

Where the essays by Allan, Beeny, and Groom substantially expand topics that are difficult to explore fully in an exhibition, the essays by Burnham and Lehmbeck hew closer to the exhibition, adding rich contextualization to Manet’s paintings of parisiennes. Burnham’s essay, “‘The Type of an Era’: Manet and the Parisienne,” appears first in the catalogue and largely confines its analysis to In the Conservatory, Portrait of Madame Manet in the Conservatory (ca. 1876–79), Jeanne, Autumn (Méry Laurent) (1881 or 1882), and Young Woman in Riding Costume (1882–83). These works, according to Burnham, use fashion to construct identity: “In these works clothing has the power to shape identity, create meaning, and even act as a kind of disguise. Manet revealed not only the characteristics of the type parisiennes but also a great deal about the fashion system of which she was a part in a rapidly changing urban scene” (43). Burnham, echoing the themes of the exhibition and the other essays already discussed, once again stresses that Manet’s embrace of female subjects and women’s fashion was not due to diminishing ability but rather that feminine fashion allowed him to connote complex themes and respond to modern life.

Similar themes are explored by Lehmbeck in her essay, “All the World’s a Stage: Manet Images of Model-Actresses.” However, where Burnham looks at the use of fashion to construct the image of the parisienne, Lehmbeck emphasizes the equally significant fact that many of Manet’s parisiennes were known actors. Lehmbeck begins with a discussion of the fraught status of actresses in the mid-nineteenth century and the Third Republic’s subsequent efforts to rehabilitate the perception of actresses in the 1870s. Lehmbeck’s analysis also aligns with Burnham’s suggestion that Manet’s keen interest in actresses was a specific response of his Parisian milieu. Somewhat like Beeny’s essay on the Rococo revival, Lehmbeck’s essay encompasses more than Manet’s last years and includes some of his most iconic works, such as Nana (1877) and Skating (1877), which feature the actress Henriette Hauser. (The latter canvas was only included in the Getty version of the exhibition.) This is not a weakness of Lehmbeck’s essay; indeed, she argues that Manet’s relied upon actresses as models throughout his career. All this suggests that femininity, fashion, artifice, and performance should rightly be understood as central to Manet’s entire career, not just his final years.

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Fig. 12, Édouard Manet. Letter to Madame Jules Guillemet, Decorated with a Portrait and a Still Life of a Bag and a Parasol, July 1880. Watercolor, pen, and ink on paper. Private Collection. Image courtesy of Saint Honoré Art Consulting, Paris.

The final two contextual essays deal with Manet’s last flowers. The first by Armstrong analyzes the floral watercolors in Manet’s late personal letters. The second by Alsdorf places Manet’s late still lifes in the context of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (1857). Armstrong begins by raising the disjuncture between Manet’s small-scale flower paintings and his scandalous Salon works of the 1860s. She argues that these last flowers are not just the product of Manet’s convalescence but rather part of a dialogue between the sender and receiver and an interplay between text and image in the correspondence in which they appeared, or as she puts it, “a sexed realm, in which semiotic intercourse between the masculine and feminine takes place” (114). Transitioning to the late works, Armstrong notes the interplay of the masculine and feminine in Manet’s watercolor letters. The sexed nature of these images ranges from the beauty of flowers and fruits, to simple poetry, portraits of female visitors, and numerous, fragmentary images of fashionable women’s feet, stockings, the hems of their dresses, and even the occasional petticoat (fig. 12). Armstrong’s essay concludes by noting that not all of Manet’s watercolor letters in these last years were flirtatious or to women, but that these again present complex sender/receiver relationships where text, image, and message must be deciphered.

Alsdorf’s, “Manet’s Fleurs du mal” similarly focuses on Manet’s late flowers, specifically analyzing their profound pathos and allusions to modern, urban Paris in general and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. Alsdorf begins by establishing Manet and Baudelaire’s relationship, noting their friendship and Baudelaire’s professional influence on Manet. On this last point, Alsdorf notes that while there has been ample attention to the Baudelairean themes in Manet’s works from the 1860s, this connection remained vital to Manet’s work through his last years. After tracing the anti-Romantic and at times explicitly Baudelairean connotations of the floral arrangement in Olympia (1863), Alsdorf turns her attention to Manet’s late Salon paintings, specifically the three that feature flowers: In the Conservatory, Jeanne, and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Here she aptly discusses how Manet and contemporary critics read his work through a rich language of floral metaphors that he used in an ironic, modern, and subversive manner.

The technical analysis of Jeanne, by Ormond, Schmidt Patterson, Maclennan, and Daly, focuses on pigments, fibers, and grounds and reveals that Manet continued to paint using the highly academic training he had received in the studio of Thomas Couture. It further notes that Manet used the same pigments through his career but changed the admixture in the 1870s to lighten his work, as seen in Jeanne. Similarly, his work has the quick, Impressionistic tache brushstrokes (as well as evidence he used new, modern brushes), but in Jeanne, he used wet-in-wet painting sparingly. Thus, fittingly from a technical perspective, Jeanne “is teetering between the traditional and the modern” (157). The last in the catalogue introduces a selection of Manet’s correspondence from the last six years of his life. These letters, selected, transcribed, and annotated by Rodary and translated by Beeny, highlight the defining concerns of Manet’s last years, his interest in the decorative arts, his exhibition at La Vie Moderne, and his last efforts to define a modern beauty. They also tangibly demonstrate the importance of women in Manet’s professional and social spheres.

The catalogue to Manet and Modern Beauty, like the exhibition itself, presents a new interpretation of Manet’s last years. Here Manet is not a dying and diminished artist, but rather an ambitious, active, and engaged figure, who continued to explore modern beauty, embrace the decorative arts, and increasingly focused on feminine subjects, themes, and even outlook. We do not know what Manet would have done had he lived past age fifty-one, but as Manet and Modern Beauty suggests, his last years established a new direction for his art. Though Manet’s interest in beauty has been diminished in the dominant scholarly narratives, we should not repeat this error and favor these at the expense of his continuing interests in the issues of urban crisis and the fraught politics of the Third Republic. Indeed, many of the works and themes discussed by the exhibition, including the place of women in the Third Republic, the transition from the city to the garden, and the de-politicization of France via the Rococo revival, have political dimensions that could and should remain part of the dialogue around Manet’s last years.

Tyler E. Ostergaard
Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville

[1] The vast majority of works on view were produced between 1876 and 1882. This constrained timeline lends the exhibition a strong focus and further allows a remarkably, if not completely, comprehensive view of Manet’s production from 1876 to the end of his life. One notable exception is the inclusion of Boating, painted at Argenteuil along with Monet in 1874. Among the most famous paintings in the exhibition, Boating opens the exhibition and features prominently. However, this inclusion is less anomalous than it appears as Manet submitted Boating (paired with In the Conservatory) to the Salon of 1879 as noted by Scott Allan on page 22 of the catalogue.

[2] Scott Allan and Emily Beeny, “Exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty Explores the Artist’s Last Years,” last modified May 26, 2019,