‘On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1923 essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, ‘human character changed.’ Woolf was writing in response to an exhibition held in 1910 at London’s Grafton Galleries called ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ organized by the critic, Roger Fry. For Woolf, the introduction of the work of Edouard Manet and the artists he influenced to the British public announced the end of the old restrictive order of realist representation. It was the birth, not just of modern art, but the modern world.
Edouard Manet, like Woolf, was born into a conservative, haute-bourgeois background. The son of a respected French civil servant who wanted the young Edouard to go into law, Manet eventually escaped parental opposition to his painting and trained under Thomas Couture in Paris. There he began studying the Old Masters, particularly the great Spanish painters, Velázquez and Goya, whose work was to profoundly influence him.
Throughout Manet’s career the conservatism of his background would remain in constant conflict with his visionary talent. The Salon still ruled the Parisian art world of the mid-1800s and, though a growing avant-garde was beginning to see it as a restrictive, moralising force, Manet strove continuously for its favour. His work, however, was often too revolutionary for the establishment; masterpieces such as Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863), both ironic reinventions of Old Master compositions, were either rejected or openly vilified for what was seen as their shameless modernity.
Nevertheless, Manet’s unique vision and progressive style attracted important support from the avant-garde. Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola publicly defended his work and, by the late 1860s, a younger generation of artists was being influenced by him. Manet would never exhibit with the Impressionists, a group his name has since become synonymous with, many of whom became his friends. But towards the end of his life the movement that he himself inspired had begun to influence him in return. Late works such as A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) are both extraordinary examples of Manet’s own unique style and masterpieces of Impressionism.
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