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Édouard Manet's final years of art - on display in American galleries in 2019-20

Édouard Manet was born in Paris in 1832 into a privileged family: His father was a high-ranking civil servant, and his mother’s fam­ily was well connected during and after the Napoleonic era. Manet was one of the few art students who could afford to eat and to feed his friends, and to buy proper art equipment.

This, the first exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute devoted exclus­ively to Manet in many decades, focuses on the transformation of the artist’s style in his later years. Manet’s ground-breaking works of the 1860s had been shaped by his rediscovery of old masters like Veláz­quez. Yet by the late 1870s, Manet was recognised as an artist of modern life. Certainly he examined historical subjects and hist­or­ical styles, but in the 1870s he wanted the life that was actually happening in Paris in his own time.

In his mid-40s Manet's health rapidly deteriorated; he suffered severe pain and partial paral­ys­is in his legs. In 1879 the artist began receiving hydro­therapy treatments at a spa, but since he had tertiary syphilis, all water-treatments failed. And as his mobility became increasingly restricted, Manet had to ad­apt to new methods of painting and to a decreased access to travel. Fortunately he still had his own house and garden to paint in.

Emilie Ambre as Carmen, 1881

Left: Jeanne (Spring) 1881 and
right: Méry (Autumn) 1881

The House at Rueil (1882, 93 × 74 cm) was my favourite late work. Manet’s works, many painted for friends, functioned as parting gifts from an artist who knew his death was imminent. Purchased from artist Jean-Baptiste Fauré in Paris straight after Man­et died in 1883, this painting made its way through various gall­er­ies, arriv­ing in the National Gallery Victor­ia in 1926. Thank you, NGV, for lending the House at Rueil to Chicago and to The Getty.

Smaller canvases allowed the artist to paint sitting down; water colours and pastels were less exhausting than oils; and he limited his images to a single person or a small still life. Manet’s era of large-scale masterpieces like Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1862, ‎208 × 265 cm) and Olympia (1863, 131 × 190 cm) was over. This display is the first to focus on this later era in the artist’s car­eer. In his last years Manet painted many small-scale still lifes of fruits and vegetables eg tiny The Lemon (1880, 14 x 22 cm). In Bunch of As­p­aragus (1880, 17 x 22 cm), a gleaming white bunch was resting on a bed of lush greenery.

He limited himself to small but delightful floral formats eg Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase (1882, 33 x 25 cm). It was this series of flowers, painted the year before he died, that best caught Manet’s late concept of beauty: roses, peonies, lil­acs, and sprays of flow­ers in crystal vases. Small-scale and in­tim­ate, they showed off Manet’s painstaking brushwork and his at­t­ent­ion to light and shad­ow. His contemporaries tended to depict top-heavy flower bouquets in ceramic vases. Manet, by contrast, placed his bouquets in clear and conspicuous crystal vases that were as lovely as the flowers. In Moss Roses in a Vase (1882, 56 x 34 cm), painted in the year before his death, the action was in the shimmering stems in the water inside the vase. His late floral paintings works were fine examples of transparency, showing the reflected light.

And another two of his late paintings were of the young fash­ion­able model-actress Jeanne Dem­arsy and one of his friend Méry Laur­ent. Called Jeanne (Spring) 1881 and Méry (Autumn) 1881, the two were single portraits and not busy social scenes. Intended for a series on the four seasons, these two hung at the 1882 Salon, charming and chic. Just as well Manet had plenty of gardens around his studio. Note the blossoms surround­ing Jeanne’s head and the flowers decorating her dress.

 Four apples, 1882

 Moss roses in a vase, 1882

Pinks and clematis in a crystal vase, 1882

At that 1882 exhibition, the critics believed the two paintings ec­lipsed the now far-better-known Bar at the Folies-Bergère (96 cm x 1.3 m), which was also there on view, and offered Manet a great suc­­cess at his last Salon showing. But I am not sure that was true. Paul Getty Museum didn’t even purchase Jeanne (Spring) until 2014.

In April 1883, the artist’s left foot was amputated because of gang­rene, due to complications from tertiary syphilis. He died in Paris and was buried in the Passy Cemetery.

Now in Chicago’s Art Institute where the show runs until 8th Sept 2019, it will then be moving to The Getty from Oct-12th Jan 2020. Manet and Modern Beauty features 90 artworks and chronicles the artist’s painful but productive final years. The show opens with a look at Manet’s work from the 1870s, when he felt a close kin­ship with the French impressionists, and concludes with his very late, smaller themes.

Conclusion This is the first Chicago Art Institute show solely devoted to the Manet in decades, and the first loan exhib­ition at the Getty ever. Manet’s late interest in still lifes was in part a result of his own diminished physical cap­ac­ities. Though his last years were spent in constant pain, often living in temporary homes where he went for rest cur­es, Manet was still desperate to paint.

House at Rueil, 1882


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