Édouard Manet (1832–1883) has been credited with sparking nearly every important movement of modern art, from French Impressionism in the 1870s to American abstraction in the 1950s. “Manet was as important to us,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir reflected on behalf of the Impressionists, “as Cimabue and Giotto were to the Italian Renaissance.” But even as his contemporaries were eager to claim lineage from him, Manet remained adamantly independent of any particular movement. In fact, this revolutionary painter repeatedly tried — and very often failed — to achieve success in the most conservative arena, the annual Salon exhibitions run by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
By his thirties, Manet had achieved public notoriety with Luncheon on the Grass (1863), which was rejected by the Salon but shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, and Olympia (1863), which Manet held back until the Salon of 1865. As a self-proclaimed “Bourgeois de Paris” put it in 1863, “Manet has the qualities necessary to be unanimously refused by all the juries in the world.” Critics found Manet’s planar application of paint and his lack of traditional finish aesthetically offensive and his depiction of controversial subjects, particularly the female nude, morally repugnant.
Manet’s advocates, however, understood his art as a pointed response to contemporary Parisian life. Under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, France’s Second Empire government realized the grand boulevards and public spaces that remain iconic to this day, but this resulted in the destruction of entire neighborhoods and displacement of the urban poor. Manet’s friend Charles Baudelaire captured the capital’s conflicting feelings of excitement and nostalgia in the poems of The Flowers of Evil (1861) and described new kinds of spectatorship in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), an essay indelibly linked to Manet.
After a career beset by critical disdain, Manet was honored with a retrospective exhibition organized a year after his death by the state-sponsored École des Beaux-Arts. In the words of his longtime friend and advocate Émile Zola, this was Manet’s “brusque apotheosis” into the artistic canon.