Show Me the Manet

Realist or proto-Impressionist? Manet, the subject of the Royal Academy’s latest blockbuster show, was both of those. Also a fair imitator of the Old Master style when he wanted. There’s even a surreal touch to some of his work, with one fantasy painting which could almost pass for Dali. With his private means he was something of a dilettante artist, a prosperous member of the Parisian bourgeoisie rather than your stereotypical artist starving in a garret.

Realist  or proto-Impressionist?  Manet, the subject of the Royal Academy’s latest blockbuster show, was both of those. Also a fair imitator of the Old Master style when he wanted. There’s even a surreal touch to some of his work, with one fantasy painting which could almost pass for Dali. With his private means he was something of a dilettante artist, a prosperous member of the Parisian bourgeoisie rather than your stereotypical artist starving in a garret. 

And this, for me, is what makes the show so fascinating. For the most part Manet is showing us portraits of his own set and his own class, the fashionable inhabitants of fast-modernising Paris in the 1860s and 1870s. It is fascinating for the clothes, the interiors, the attitude. Manet was a progressive, an experimenter, hard to categorise and, in his day, quite one to baffle and scandalise the critics. Consider his Dejeuner sur l’herbe, the naked woman at the picnic among the clothed men. There’s a version of it here and it still carries its charge of strangeness.

Although there are plenty of commissioned portraits here – including celebrities ranging from novelist Emile Zola and poet Charles Baudelaire to leading politician Georges Clemenceau, and some of these were his friends – it is the paintings of his more intimate circle, his family and his models, which have the most impact.  Two in particular stand out for me: “The Luncheon” in which Manet’s stepson Leon Leenhoff, attired as a fashionable teenager, stares over your shoulder out of the picture, ignoring the food and the two adults at the table behind him; and “The Railway” in which a woman (his voluptuous model Victorine Meurent, for once fully clothed) looks out at you while a young girl beside her gazes through railings at the steam of a passing locomotive, invisible below. It was in a friend’s garden: you can just make out the back of Manet’s own house on the other side of the tracks. Elsewhere there are several affectionate portraits of another model, his undeniably plump wife Suzanne.

This is a classic RA exhibition: bringing together paintings seldom seen in this country, some famous, some almost unknown. Perhaps there is just a touch of ‘filler’ about some of the many portraits, but the works of brilliance – the ones with a touch of awkwardness and otherness about them, the ones which confront you with disconcerting directness, as if you were meeting these people personally in the room  - these are what elevate the show. 

The next morning I had to return to the RA to talk to the architect of its expansion, David Chipperfield. Five minutes before the doors opened to the first day of the show, the courtyard was already filled with a long queue of patient people waiting to get in. I’m not in the least surprised.


"Manet: Portraying Life” is at the Royal Academy, London, until April 14 2013