An exhibition in Chicago showcases Manet’s late work.
Édouard Manet continued to create heroically-scaled pictures for the Salon—including major achievements like A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1892)—until his death in 1883. But as the 1870s gave way to the 1880s and his health diminished, Manet’s output changed, as if, like whipped cream, it had been whisked with air. He painted velvety still lifes, delicate pastels and intimate watercolors. His café and garden scenes of this period bloom with flowers and fashionably dressed women, often models, actresses, and demimondaines of his acquaintance, or his charming wife, Suzanne. Sometimes, as in Boating (1874) or In the Conservatory (about 1877–79), he pairs women with men and sets a mood that’s about 99 percent courtly and one percent flirty. In these works, he fully embraces beauty.
Critics have dismissed this corner of his oeuvre as frivolous. Indeed, on the surface, these works appear far less provocative than his watershed paintings of the 1860s. But perhaps lurking beneath their comely surfaces is something deeper. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry takes on two prevailing arguments against beauty that might also be levied against Manet’s late works—that beautiful things take our attention away from injustices, and that the act of looking at beautiful things in turn objectifies and cheapens them. Scarry posits instead that the beautiful “acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction—to locate what is true.” For Scarry, as with Plato, beauty has the ability to incite one to create something better—even to restore one’s trust in the world.
For Manet, who in his last decade struggled with ill health and likely knew he would die prematurely—he did, at just 51—it seems plausible that his turn to beauty was an effort to capture what felt was enduring and true. Perhaps beauty felt like a panacea for the severe pain and paralysis he experienced in his legs due to locomotor ataxia. Or perhaps the opulent fashions, sprightly models, and blossoming flowers he arranged for his late works were the last hedonistic pleasures of a dying man. After all, Kant said that every other pleasure can be exhausted, but the desire for beauty is inexhaustible—one can’t tire of it.
“Manet and Modern Beauty,” which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 8, focuses exclusively on this period of the artist’s work—the 1870s through his death in 1883. The first exhibition at the Art Institute devoted to the artist in 50 years, it showcases some 90 works in total, with 50 paintings, numerous pastels, and a host of works on paper including watercolors and prints. Also on view is a rare collection of letters that Manet wrote to his friends during this period, many of which are finely illustrated with flowers and fruits. The exhibition is organized in conjunction with the J. Paul Getty Museum, and will have a run at the Los Angeles institution next fall.
The show finds Manet at the height of his interest in fashion. While previously he had looked to historical referents and styles, in these late paintings his feet are planted firmly in the now. Through his impeccable attention to the fine, contemporary womenswear of his day, he achieved an elevated sense of realism in his portraits. Jeanne (Spring), an 1881 painting, is a dazzling example of Manet’s couturier’s eye. Jeanne Demarsy, a young actress who would go on to gain acclaim on the Paris stage for her portrayal of Venus in Jacques Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, was a favorite model of Manet’s in the 1880s. Prior to posing Jeanne in his studio, the artist visited several high-end modistes for dresses and hats, eventually choosing a white fitted frock spangled with a floral pattern and elbow-reaching camel gloves. Manet crowned the actress in a ruffled bonnet topped with flowers and tied with a thick black ribbon and placed a parasol trimmed with a bedskirt of ornate lace in her hand. The actress’ pale, powdered complexion and rosy lips offset the painting’s verdant background, creating an image of striking freshness.
Jeanne was presented at the 1882 Salon near A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet’s other submission that year. Of the two, Jeanne was the runaway hit. Conservative critics praised it for having what was for Manet a more finished look, and everyone else seemingly praised it for its chicness and robust beauty. It portrayed after all, a fantasy of the modern, fashion-forward parisienne, strolling through a garden where she is the only thing more beautiful than the scenery. The 1882 Salon was Manet’s last and, it can be argued, his highest success. At any rate, is was the high point for Jeanne, which would never reach the same level of exposure despite passing through the hands of Antonin Proust, the opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, Paul Durand-Ruel, and New York millionaire Colonel Oliver Payne, before coming into the collection of the Getty in 2014.
Jeanne was part of an unrealized project to portray the seasons through paintings of stylishly attired women. The only other completed work in the series, Autumn (Méry Laurent) (1881 or 1882), comes to the exhibition from the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Manet portrays the demimondaine and artist’s muse Méry Laurent against a light blue, flower-dotted background that is thought to have been inspired by a Japanese garment that belonged to Proust. Méry’s apparence is exceedingly fashionable, down to her Venetian blond hair, a trendy hue popularized by the courtesan Cora Pearl. The sitter’s coat, likely a sable, is rich with autumnal hues that matches her deeply rouged-lips. The fur is thought to be the model’s own, as Proust has quoted Manet saying that he was so inspired by the coat he asked Méry to give it to him when it wore out, for a future project he had in mind.
The late “feminization” of Manet’s work, as it has been called, includes a cache of painted floral still lifes—Roses and Lilacs in a Crystal Vase (circa 1882), Vase of White Lilacs and Roses (1883), White Lilacs in a Crystal Vase (circa 1882), Bouquet of Peonies (circa 1882), to name a few. As with Flowers in a Crystal Vase (about 1882), a small-scale example that comes to the show from the National Gallery of Art, these still lifes are gorgeous explorations of color where oil paint appears to have the sumptuous softness of pastel. They’re closely tied to Manet’s identity as a Parisian gentleman, as some were based on bouquets he received from female callers and others were given to ladies in lieu of real bouquets. As these exchanges suggest, flowers represented sociability, politeness, and, of course, beauty.
It is a special treat that Manet typically portrayed his bouquets in crystal vases. There, in these vessels, one can see the organic detritus of cut flowers. There are browning stems, fallen leaves, and at times, a general sort of muck—beauty and truth.
By Sarah E. Fensom