In a contest for the title of most reviled artist, Edouard Manet would be well placed to win.
It was only after his death of tertiary syphilis at age 51, in 1883, that he was recognized as one of the great masters of the 19th century. Placing him in the history of art, however, is not an easy task.
The Impressionists regarded him as their leader and were disappointed when he refused to participate in their exhibitions. Degas called him a traitor.
In 1910, the first Post-Impressionist show in London, organized by Roger Fry, treated him as the forerunner of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Today, we tend to see him as the man who invented modernity.
That’s, in fact, the subtitle of a huge exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Nonetheless, the show firmly embeds Manet in the tradition of French painting, surrounding his works with some by his more conventional colleagues. The Manichaean way of separating academic art and avant-garde, we are told by the curators, makes no sense.
In the first room, 19 works by Manet are confronted with nine by his teacher Thomas Couture. Traditionally, Manet’s six years of apprenticeship are dismissed as of no great consequence, and it’s true the teacher was horrified by the pupil’s “Absinthe Drinker,” the first of his many paintings rejected by the Salon. It’s on display here as an etching.
“There’s only one absinthe drinker,” Couture said, “and that’s the man who painted this idiotic picture.”
The second room, labeled “Le Moment Baudelaire,” reminds us of Manet’s close relationship with the avant-garde poet who became one of his most ardent defenders.
Here are the two canvases whose provocative nudes earned Manet the notoriety of an enfant terrible. “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” exhibited in 1863 at the Salon des Refuses, caused a scandal and led to the closing of the exhibition. Two years later, “Olympia” was admitted to the Salon where it duly shocked the bien-pensants.
With some 140 works by Manet, the show is smaller than the 1983 retrospective, the last in Paris, which then traveled to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Still, with a few exceptions such as “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” from the Courtauld Institute, all the masterpieces are here.
The presentation isn’t strictly chronological. The works are grouped around nine themes, some more convincing than others. One is the influence of Spanish painters on Manet’s art. The most obvious link is the extensive use of black.
“The Execution of Maximilian,” though inspired by Goya, appears only in the last section, which has the misleading title “End of History?” What it means is that Manet, unlike most of the Impressionists, also was a political observer and an astute witness of his times.
Although born into the haute bourgeoisie -- his father was a high-placed official at the Ministry of Justice, his mother the daughter of a diplomat -- he sympathized with the insurrection of the 1871 Commune.
There are several lithographs of the street battles during the “Semaine Sanglante,” or Bloody Week, in the show. A watercolor marks the amnesty of the Communards, many of whom had been sent to New Caledonia.
The last two canvases, dated 1881, depict the dramatic escape of Henri Rochefort, a radical journalist, from that penal colony. It was a feat that thrilled the country as much as the escape of the Count of Monte-Cristo from the dungeons of the Chateau d’If had fascinated an earlier generation.
“Manet, the Man Who Invented Modernity,” which is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, runs through July 3. Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr or +33-1-4049-4814.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)