Manet and Modernism:
A Perspective on Manet
Modernism, as it relates to the work of Edouard Manet, requires at least two caveats as prerequisites to forming a perspective. The problem is twofold: 1) ‘modernism’ is a term with broad, even sometimes vague, definitions, and 2) Edouard Manet’s prolific work is open to broad degrees of interpretation. In the first instance, and for the contextual purposes of this essay, ‘modernism’ can be described here as primarily including efforts in the field of art within the political and historical framework of 1860 to 1970. However, as one expert notes, “Modernism has its roots in the past” (Witcombe, 1997). Here, we are concerned with the ‘mechanics’ of modern art (line, shape, color, etc.), but it is important to understand the philosophy that motivated such art. Secondly, Edouard Manet’s painting career of over 30 years included approximately 284 oil paintings (listing appended) with assorted discernible styles. Yet, between the formalism of his earliest works, and the impressionism of his later works, are works experimental in nature. With reference to one of these ‘typical’ experimental works, “Young Lady with a Parrot” (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, December 2008), a perspective on Manet can be simply stated: Edouard Manet’s work exhibits the essential hallmarks of modernism. In fact, by bridging and combining the styles traditionally thought of as impressionism, realism, and modernism, Manet can rightfully be considered a ‘father of modernism’ in art. Helpful in understanding the philosophy, and aesthetics, of ‘modernism’ in its historical context are the comments of Phi Delta Kappan Elkind. Although this author is specifically concerned with trends in education, his comments serve to summarize modernist philosophy well. He states, “Modernity was built on three unquestioned assumptions about the world. The first idea was that of progress, the notion that societies inevitably moved forward in a positive direction from slavery and feudalism to individual freedom and democracy….A second underlying conception of modernity was that of universality. The emergence of science, the scientific method, and the reliance on observation and experiment was encouraged by the modern belief that nature, rather than religious or imperial authority, was the only source of knowledge and truth. Nature was assumed to operate according to universal laws that could be discovered by diligent research…[and]… The last undergirding assumption of the modern world was that of regularity. Nature was lawful, and the task of science was to uncover this lawfulness” (Elkind, 1997). With these basic concepts in mind, how then was the ‘modernist’ artist of Manet’s time to proceed? As various experts and critics have analyzed and digested the painters of Manet’s time, it has gradually become clear that while Manet acknowledged his predecessors and their talent, he also paradoxically incorporated ‘twists’ in his paintings which suggest a very rebellious, or at least experimental, nature more akin to a modernist viewpoint than to accepted authority. He did rely on live models and sketchbooks, but yet, as his friend Zola commented, "...Manet's was a pure artistic temperament driven 'to achieve beautiful patches, beautiful contrasts'" (Shattuck, 1997). In addition, it is notable that although Manet has been identified with Impressionism, he never once exhibited his paintings at Impressionist exhibitions during his lifetime, even though he had ample opportunities to do so. His students (e.g., Monet) embraced Impressionism and generally considered Manet a ‘mentor figure’. Noted art historian Witcombe sums up the prevailing consensus of experts regarding modern art and Manet thusly: “Art historians tend to speak of modern painting, for example, as concerned primarily with qualities of colour, shape, and line applied systematically or expressively, and marked over time by an increasing concern with...
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