Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Edouard Manet was a great painter, no question about that. But what sort of artist was he?
“Impressionist” doesn’t really fit, and neither “realist” nor “naturalist” gets you much further. But a splendid new exhibition helps to get this slippery master of the brush into better focus. “Manet: Portraying Life” opens at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Jan. 26.
It concentrates on portraits. You soon realize that portraiture, with Manet (1832 -1883), was an extremely flexible concept. Some of the works on display are quite conventional. The two French politicians, Georges Clemenceau and Henri Rochefort, arms folded, stare out of the picture in statesmanlike fashion.
Others are more like the snaps we take these days on our smartphones: a moment of passing life captured. “The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil” (1874) shows us Madame Monet sitting on the grass with their son, the painter pottering in the background with a watering can while two chickens wander by.
Then there are the unclassifiable pictures in which people in the artist’s life appear but, so to speak, in costume like characters in a play.
In “The Luncheon” (1868), one of Manet’s masterpieces, the young man in a straw hat who lolls against a table laden with food and drink is Leon Leenhoff, son of Manet’s wife (born before they were married, but possibly Manet’s son, or alternatively his own father’s). But this isn’t a portrait of Leon.
It’s more like that thing the 19th-century public loved: a picture that suggests a story. There’s an older man, posed by a fellow painter, smoking a cigar to one side, and a serving woman with a silver jug in the back. It is, as the catalog says, “enigmatic.”
The last room of the exhibition (and just about the best) contains a selection of pictures, all starring Victorine Meurent, the auburn-haired model who posed for a number of Manet’s paintings, including the scandalous nude, “Olympia”.
These are all quite different. In “The Railway” (1873) Victorine is seated outdoors with a little girl, the latter with her back to the viewer. Behind them is a fence and beyond that, the smoke and steam of the railway. Again, no real story, but a feeling there might be one here if you could only find it.
In “Dejeuner sur l‘herbe” (1863-68) -- of which a smaller, more loosely painted version of the famous original is on show -- Victorine is having a picnic stark naked with two fully dressed men. No narrative here either, though art historians have tried hard to find one.
But there is a clue to what Manet was up to: redoing the old masters, entirely from real people he knew and the life around him.
“Dejeuner sur l‘herbe” is based on a 16th-century engraving. A lot of Manet is derived from Velasquez (“the greatest artist there has ever been” in his opinion).
His fabulous treatment of black on black, for example, and subtly different whites and delicately varied grays: The spell-binding “Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets” (1873) is entirely an exercise in blacks and whites except for her glamorous, intelligent face -- and those violets.
I think it’s obvious that “The Luncheon” is partly about Dutch painting, and particularly Vermeer (look at that map in the background and the silver jug).
So Manet was doing what Cezanne once said he wanted to do: recreate old masters “after nature.” He did that so freshly that in this exhibition you seldom think, “Here’s another portrait.” His pictures remain astonishingly fresh and diverse.
“Manet: Portraying Life” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD, from Jan. 26 through April 14, sponsored by BNY Mellon.
Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/ or +44-20-7300-8000.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Richard Vines on food and John Mariani on wine.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.