Today, I had the exceedingly rare privilege of viewing several rooms full of original works by Édouard Manet. The exhibition, currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, is well worth the effort of going to see, if you have the chance. What a feast for the eyes and the intellect!
The brilliant thing about seeing Manet’s paintings, in the paint, as it were, was that you can get close enough to study the brush strokes and the colour mixing. Indeed, because many of the works were thought to be unfinished, you can see Manet’s approach to painting, with many of the best things actually totally unresolved. Here is a brief list of things I observed:
1) Manet was an excellent draughtsman. When he drew, he drew with paint and he generally got it dead on, first go.
2) When he didn’t get it right first go, he was not adverse to scraping the paint off and starting again.
3) He mixed his paint on the palette. There is very little evidence of blending colours, on the canvas, except for when he was going for a diffuse effect.
4) If you want to learn to mix skin tones, take a very close look at Manet’s skin tones.
5) From the very first rough blocks of colour, you can see the composition of the picture, the suggestions of shadows and a pretty final choice of colours
6) He was not afraid to radically alter his compositions
7) The first thing Manet did was to block in the main features of the painting, then resolve important features of the painting, like facial features, later on
8) His best works tended to be painted on a large scale – much bigger than the usual work of Monet, but not as large as Monet’s water lilies.
9) Manet didn’t resolve hands, or backgrounds and sometimes even faces, if they were not central to the image. He painted them crudely, suggesting their forms, rather than carefully modelling them
10) Manet was a master of just placing the one deft, carefully shaped brush stroke of exactly the right colour on the canvas. When he did simply suggest forms, it was never with doubt. Every brush stroke is purposeful and final. There is little evidence of reworking
11) Manet could handle black. He was masterly at using black and dark greys to render textures and fabrics.
12) Like Velazquez, Manet’s paintings have great dynamic tonal range, with the blackest of blacks offset by the whitest of whites. This makes his ability to use light and shadow, especially to define facial planes, so much the more astonishing
13) He painted studies, before painting masterworks, but also painted miniatures (perhaps on commission) at a smaller scale, than some of his more famous works
14) Manet appreciated the female form and fashion, painting both with sensitivity and admiration
15) Manet’s portraits are painted with a great deal of love. His subjects are often people to whom he was intimately emotionally attached, or very loyal toward. You can see this love in the rendering and softness of the eyes and faces.
16) Manet showed that painting real life was actually more heroic than painting heroic scenes derived from myth and legend
17) Although he sought the approval of the art establishment, he never bent his style sufficiently from his own authentic approach to please them. In fact, he hardly compromised at all.
18) Manet was fond of the odd visual “in joke”. I would love to start adding elaborately peeled lemons in my portraits, in homage. He often wittily quoted classical compositions by acknowledged masters, in his own works, but always with a twist.
19) Even his unfinished works suggest what they would have been like, had he finished them.
20) His pastels are as astonishing as his oil paintings, but far softer. They were also better received by the art establishment, praised for the same abbreviations and “just dashed off” qualities that his oil paintings were pilloried for.
21) If there hadn’t been Manet, the impressionists might not have had the same courage or daring. There wouldn’t have been cubism. You can see the direct connection between these movements and what Manet was doing, only he was doing it first.
22) Manet was not an impressionist, even though he paints some of his subjects with very few brush strokes and leaves the energetic, raw brush strokes on the canvas, for all to see.
23) If you learn to paint in the classical style, the techniques of drawing accurately and working with colour and tone are great foundations, but breaking free from the house style is what excites us about Manet’s work. Learn the rules and then break them.
24) Placing colours on the canvas is more dramatic than softly blending or diffusing them, sometimes.
25) Fortunately, he was independently wealthy. This allowed him to use the best materials, in quantity and to paint at scale, without needing to sell anything to survive. Indeed, it enabled him to stay true to his own style and to exhibit on his own, when rejected as a refusenik, by the Salon.
26) There is evidence that Manet was a painter of light, as was Monet. Several of the paintings in the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art demonstrate an understanding of reflected light and highlights, that give the works a vibrant, luminous quality
27) He used smallish brushes, even for large areas of colour. I would say he never went above a number 6 or 8. For large areas, he crosshatched, diagonally, with thinned down paint. Often, the paint looks scrubbed in. He must have used quite fine brushes (number 0 or smaller) for the tiny sparkles in the eyes, the lip line and the detail around the eyes and nose. The line work is quite fine.
28) Manet hated painting from photographs (there is evidence that he sometimes had to) and preferred to paint from life. It’s obvious why. He needed to feel for his subjects, empathically, in order to paint them well. Photographs didn’t do this for him. Consequently, he drove his sitters to distraction, because he demanded multiple, lengthy sittings, to finish a portrait. His best works involve professional models, paid to stay put. Victorine Meurent seems to have been a favourite. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorine_Meurent Victorine understood how to be a good model and became an accomplished artist herself. Indeed, her paintings were accepted and hung by the Salon, when Manet’s were rejected. See was selected by the committee to exhibit six times, but only one of her works is thought to survive.
29) I don’t think Manet set out to shock. He was just doing what he felt was right. The fact that critics and the public were shocked and even reacted violently toward his art was a shock to him.
30) He died way too young, from a debilitating disease that progressively attacks the central nervous system (a dreadful death) – I can’t help feeling regret that there are so few of Manet’s works to see.
That’s my brief summary, from the top of my head. I would like to try some of his approaches in my own work, especially his use of colour, his rapid establishment of form, colour scheme and composition and their delayed resolution (if he resolves at all), his use of gradations of black, his propensity to place perfect brush strokes with precision and surety, resisting the urge to rework or blend and his dramatic use of light and shadow. It’s a tall order, but it’s all about supreme confidence and mastery of technique.
Something to aspire to.