Édouard Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883) was a French modernist painter. He was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life, and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism.
Born into an upper-class household with strong political connections, Manet rejected the future originally envisioned for him, and became engrossed in the world of painting. His early masterworks, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and Olympia, both 1863, caused great controversy and served as rallying points for the young painters who would create Impressionism. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the start of modern art. The last 20 years of Manet’s life saw him form bonds with other great artists of the time, and develop his own style that would be heralded as innovative and serve as a major influence for future painters.
Édouard Manet was born in Paris on 23 January 1832, in the ancestral hôtel particulier (mansion) on the rue des Petits Augustins (now rue Bonaparte) to an affluent and well-connected family. His mother, Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, was the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince Charles Bernadotte, from whom the Swedish monarchs are descended. His father, Auguste Manet, was a French judge who expected Édouard to pursue a career in law. His uncle, Edmond Fournier, encouraged him to pursue painting and took young Manet to the Louvre. In 1841 he enrolled at secondary school, the Collège Rollin. In 1845, at the advice of his uncle, Manet enrolled in a special course of drawing where he met Antonin Proust, future Minister of Fine Arts and subsequent lifelong friend.
At his father’s suggestion, in 1848 he sailed on a training vessel to Rio de Janeiro. After he twice failed the examination to join the Navy, his father relented to his wishes to pursue an art education. From 1850 to 1856, Manet studied under the academic painter Thomas Couture. In his spare time, Manet copied the Old Masters in the Louvre.
From 1853 to 1856, Manet visited Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, during which time he was influenced by the Dutch painter Frans Hals, and the Spanish artists Diego Velázquez and Francisco José de Goya.
In April 1883, his left foot was amputated because of gangrene, due to complications from syphilis and rheumatism. He died eleven days later on 30 April in Paris. He is buried in the Passy Cemetery in the city.
Manet’s public career lasted from 1861, the year of his first participation in the Salon, until his death in 1883. His known extant works, as catalogued in 1975 by Denis Rouart and Daniel Wildenstein, comprise 430 oil paintings, 89 pastels, and more than 400 works on paper.
Although harshly condemned by critics who decried its lack of conventional finish, Manet’s work had admirers from the beginning. One was Émile Zola, who wrote in 1867: “We are not accustomed to seeing such simple and direct translations of reality. Then, as I said, there is such a surprisingly elegant awkwardness … it is a truly charming experience to contemplate this luminous and serious painting which interprets nature with a gentle brutality.”
The roughly painted style and photographic lighting in Manet’s paintings was seen as specifically modern, and as a challenge to the Renaissance works he copied or used as source material. He rejected the technique he had learned in the studio of Thomas Couture – in which a painting was constructed using successive layers of paint on a dark-toned ground – in favor of a direct, alla prima method using opaque paint on a light ground. Novel at the time, this method made possible the completion of a painting in a single sitting. It was adopted by the Impressionists, and became the prevalent method of painting in oils for generations that followed. Manet’s work is considered “early modern”, partially because of the opaque flatness of his surfaces, the frequent sketchlike passages, and the black outlining of figures, all of which draw attention to the surface of the picture plane and the material quality of paint.
The art historian Beatrice Farwell says Manet “has been universally regarded as the Father of Modernism. With Courbet he was among the first to take serious risks with the public whose favour he sought, the first to make alla prima painting the standard technique for oil painting and one of the first to take liberties with Renaissance perspective and to offer ‘pure painting’ as a source of aesthetic pleasure. He was a pioneer, again with Courbet, in the rejection of humanistic and historical subject-matter, and shared with Degas the establishment of modern urban life as acceptable material for high art.”