Manet’s Modernism

I love Impressionism. The pastel hues, the lighthearted subject matter. The Art Institute of Chicago has a large collection of Impressionist works. The gallery incudes Manet, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, and others.

Which is why I was so suprised to find out that Manet was not an Impressionist. I think every Impressionism book I own includes his name, but after my research for the paper below, I realized my assumptions were wrong. Manet did not paint en pein air with the other Impressionists, and at one point he explicitly said he was not part of the Impressionist style.

Manet was a Realist, a style the preceeded and overlapped with Impressionism. However, as I argue in my paper, Manet was not only a Realist painter, but the father of Modern art.

This paper was written last semester for my 19th Century Art class. I hope you enjoy it!


​Manet’s Modernism

Art movements, just like all moments in time, are fluid; it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when a new era of art begins, as it is the result of a series of ideas and events, rather than one particular component. The Italian Renaissance, for example, can be said to have been born from the rise of humanism, but also an interest in ancient proportions and the invention of one-point perspective, among other factors. Similarly, Modernism can be attributed to the rise of the bourgeoisie and a newfound interest in everything ‘modern’- a word recently coined from mode meaning “fashionable” in French (Chu, 290). But such an explanation is far too simplified. The birth of Modernism is a complex synthesis of changes in structure, be it social, ideological, or physical. Paris in the mid-nineteenth century was the hub of Modernism; it was a new city, expanded and exposed by Haussmannization, where history had been demolished and paved over, the neighborhoods gentrified, new technologies were being developed and the upper-middle class had created the new café-culture and life of leisure (Clark, 23-24). Art, too, was slowly changing. While some artists of the time remained faithful to the academic style approved by the Salon jury, and some painted to expose the often neglected lower class, Édouard Manet was one of the first artists to fully embrace the complexity of modern life. Manet’s paintings are regarded as belonging to the Realist style, although as we will see he tends not to fit so neatly in any one particular style. In his two most famous (or in his time, infamous) paintings, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, Manet transcended the limits of Realism with a scandalously new subject matter and an avant-garde painting style that signified the birth of Modernism in France.

Liberty Leading the People

In order to grasp the innovations of painting debuted by Manet, we must first discuss and understand the art preceding his work and that of his contemporaries. In order to do so one must look no further than the Salon, Paris’s annual art exhibition. It is no doubt that a hierarchy existed in the Salons; historical or religious paintings were generally the largest and most distinguished, followed by portraits, landscapes, genre scenes and still lifes (Chu, 37). The century before Manet’s Dèjeuner, the art world saw the birth of Neoclassicism fronted by Jacque-Louis David, and of Romanticism, as seen in the works of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. Both art movements produced large-scale works that tend to focus on classical subjects; ancient historical events, mythology and other ancient literature were commonly depicted (Chu, 52). Contemporary-themed paintings existed, although often with a “classicizing” element such as an allegory, as in the case of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (Figure 1; Chu, 223). Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Figure 2) depicts a contemporary event, but it was met with mixed reviews; some praised the work for its originality and political stance, others criticized its antagonism and hopelessness (Chu, 211). It seemed, at this point in time, that people were reluctant to face reality.

Raft of the Medusa

Nonetheless, Realism was born, a movement that sought to expose even the seemingly unimportant aspects of daily life. Previously the subject of genre painting, artists we now categorize as Realists appropriated banal scenes and depicted them on large canvases, normally reserved for history paintings. This was due to the writings of poet and journalist Charles Baudelaire, who, in 1846, asked artists to focus less on historical events and instead to paint contemporary life (Chu, 257). One of the artists who responded to Baudelaire’s challenge was Gustave Courbet, who showed his monumental painting A Burial at Ornans (Figure 3) at the Salon just four years later (Chu, 258). At first glance we can see that the scene is an ordinary burial of an ordinary person, there are no emperors or kings to be officially mourned. Each face is a realistic portrait; no one is idealized or posed. It is an event on a cloudy day in the countryside, destined to be forgotten in history had it not have been for Courbet’s brush. Manet was indeed inspired by the artist and the Burial in particular; author Juliet Wilson-Bareau states that “Manet was inevitably impressed by the energy and independence with which Courbet confronted the pictorial conventions of his day in a painting like the huge Burial at Ornans” (Wilson-Bareau, 8). This was an important step in the advancement of art, although the movement as a whole tended to dwell on subjects that did not change often, such as peasants or farm workers. The new and the modern was found in Paris, and artists like Édouard Manet stepped in to record it.

Burial at Ornans

Manet was certainly not the first painter to capture scenes of contemporary urban life in Paris, and if we only look at a few of his early works, we may just see an artist influenced by the Realism of Courbet and the darkened mood and colors of the Romantic Spanish painters. His first major works, the rejected The Absinthe Drinker of 1859 (Figure 4), and The Spanish Singer accepted into the Salon of 1861 (Figure 5), for example, reveals the influence of both Goya and Velásquez (Turner, et al., 254). The rejection of the former and acceptance of the latter, however, is interesting in their anticipation of the responses evoked by Manet’s later, more scandalous works. The Absinthe Drinker represents an aristocratically-dressed man precariously sitting or leaning on a ledge, on which is also a glass of absinthe, while an empty alcohol bottle rolls at his feet. The Spanish Singer depicts a man haphazardly playing guitar backwards while swaying (also quite precariously) on green bench, and at his feet are onions and a wine jug (Howard, 15). So why was the jolly drunk Spaniard accepted into the Salon over the somberly intoxicated Parisian? We can speculate that the jury of the Salon was not against drinking, or even the depiction of drunkenness in art, as long as it was not people like themselves who were reflected.

Part of the scandal of Manet’s most notable works were indeed his subjects. In Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Figure 6) Manet has painted a wildly ambiguous scene that includes two male and two female figures. One woman, who wears a loose, white shift, is leaning over in the background bathing (in a pond? a stream?). There is a boat in the water near her that seems to be the same size, or even smaller, than the woman, creating a disorienting sense of scale and perspective. The other three figures are in the foreground lounging on the grass in a forest. The two bearded men are dressed in fine modern suits and the one on the left leans casually backwards, holding a cane in his left hand and gesturing towards his companions with his right. The woman, who we know to be Victorine Meurend and a favorite model of the artist, is shockingly naked. She is sitting comfortably with her chin in hand, while twisting to address the intruding observer, albeit nonchalantly. Her flat, alabaster skin tone contrasts immensely from the darkness of the men’s suits and the shade of the forest around her. She sits on what we can guess is a discarded part of her wardrobe, perhaps a blue dress similar to the one to her right, which may belong to the bathing woman. Atop the pile of clothing is a fashionable straw hat with a ribbon, and an overflowing basket of fruit. Despite these many small details, the eye is inevitably drawn back to the naked woman. What does she symbolize, if anything? And most of all, what is she doing in the company of two modern aristocratic gentlemen?

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe- Luncheon on the Grass
As far as scholars have been able to tell, the pasty naked woman has no allegorical meaning or symbolism connected to her. Manet has left no verbal or written explanation nor painted traditional signifiers which would help identify her as a muse or allegory. That leaves us with the second question of her place in the company of the wealthy young gentlemen. As stated previously, the jury of the Salon, and the Parisian audience in general, was not against seeing scandalous pictures. The rule of thumb, so to speak, was that taboo subjects (including inappropriate behavior and nudity) were permitted in art under the guise of the ‘other.’ This ‘other’ could include another time, such as mythology or ancient cultures; it could also include foreign places, such as so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘barbaric’ places, or the fictional world of allegories. Nude women existed in plenty at the Salons, but only as goddesses, odalisques, or allegorical figures. The French considered themselves modern and civilized, and thus it was unacceptable to have a painting of a naked woman and modern French men side by side on their Salon walls. Despite the homage the work pays to classical masters such as Raphael and Giorgione, Le Déjeuner was rejected by the Salon jury, and was instead exhibited at the Salon des Refusès of 1863 (Clark, 95; Turner, et al., 255).
Perhaps an even more outrageous fusion of modernity and nakedness is Manet’s Olympia (Figure 7), painted the same year with the same model but exhibited some two years later. The woman depicted is likely a prostitute, as the name Olympia was a common pseudonym of Parisian courtesans at the time (Clark, 86). She is shown lying on a bed covered in white sheets and pillows with a floral blanket (or perhaps discarded shawl) beneath her. Her skin is pale with a yellow undertone. The outline of her body is highly contoured, and the variations of tone in her flesh are nearly nonexistent. She wears nothing but a few accessories. A pink flower is tucked behind her left ear; she wears small earrings, a jet-black choker necklace tied around her pale neck, and a small cuff bracelet that decorates her right arm. At her feet she wears one kitten-heeled slipper while the other is carelessly kicked off to the side. The naked woman stares at us, the viewer, and away from her black servant who has just entered the room through the dark green curtains in the background holding a large and colorful bouquet of flowers. At the foot of the bed, a well-camouflaged black cat holds our gaze.

Despite the comic relief of the euphemism Manet added in the form of the playful black cat, critics and audiences alike were not amused by Olympia, and proceeded to viciously attack Manet’s masterpiece by writing nasty, often hyperbolic reviews. T.J. Clark records many of these reviews in his book The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, including her likeness to “a sort of female gorilla, a grotesque in India rubber outlined in black,” or “some form or other, blown up like a grotesque in India rubber” (Clark, 94). Other reviews similarly focus on her skin tone: “her body has the livid tint of a cadaver displayed in the morgue” and “her body, of a putrefying colour, recalls the horrors of the morgue’’ (Clark, 96). Many other reviews are similarly repetitive, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to ignore the figure’s unconventional sexuality in favor of the easier, less embarrassing act of reviewing the painting’s technical aspects.

Venus of Urbino

This is exactly where the modernism of Édouard Manet’s art becomes clear. Manet, who is the last great French painter to receive a formal academic education (Turner, et al., 258), breaks convention and paints something decidedly unacademic: the totally non-idealized female nude. Compare Olympia to any other female nude in the Salon of the same year (photographs of which can be found in Clark’s book on pages 118 and 119), and one will notice that Olympia does not have the pure-white skinned, elongated, curvy body like the Venuses or Europas, and she does not have the traditional Greek profile. Even though she is clearly inspired by Titian’s classical Venus of Urbino (Figure 8), Olympia is modeled and painted from real life (Clark, 93). She is a French prostitute, and although it was common for French prostitutes to be models, it was not common for them and their likeness to be the subject of a painting without any kind of classical disguise (Clark, 100-101).

While Clark argues that part of the shock the painting caused was due to the uncertainty of the prostitute’s social status within the newly arranged class system (79-80), I am skeptic of such a conveniently polite explanation. I instead am convinced much more of Charles Bernheimer’s argument in his 1989 essay titled “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal,” where he says that “the bourgeois public took such offense at this apparent affront to its morality… because she signified for the bourgeoisie its own subjection to animal lust, to dark instinctual drives and shameful perversions…” (260). More than the discomfort of the Parisian’s exposed immorality, Olympia all at once is not ashamed of her profession (which would then categorize her as an ‘acceptable’ shy or moralizing nude), nor does she delight the male gaze with a coy smirk or lustful pose. Olympia does not give the male viewer the fantasy he was used to; she is simply a working woman, tired from a long day’s (or night’s) work, brazenly staring back at us as if to say “let’s get this over with.” The naked woman in Le Déjeuner similarly does not act as allegory nor does she fulfill male fantasies. She does stare at us, but does not invite us to participate in the scene and looks rather annoyed at our intrusion. In one of Manet’s last paintings, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (Figure 9), we are met with a similarly uninterested stare.

Un Bar aux Folies-Bergere

Aside from the moral conflicts evoked from Manet’s two scandalous pictures, the artist introduced a new way of painting that concerned itself not with the task of creating the illusion of an alternate reality, or even of portraying a moral lesson, as his predecessors had done. Scholar Seymour Howard observes:
His technique was painterly: he worked spontaneously, expressively in patches of tone, plane, and color. Academics, repeating the methods of their neoclassic inheritance, used severely disciplined and descriptive linear contours to encompass infinite monochromatic gradation. By their popular standards, Manet’s work was anathema (Howard, 16).
This idea is particularly evident in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The painting is jumbled and mismatched, it doesn’t make sense and definitely does not look like a real scene. Nor is it intended to. Manet certainly had the capability to sketch an outdoor scene with models and props and then recreate the sketch formally in his studio with an attempt to make it as close to life as possible. Instead, Manet painted while being aware of what the output would be was just that- a painting. One may even argue that Le Déjeuner contains a number of paintings haphazardly strung together: a fruit still life, a bather, a nude, a portrait of two men, and a landscape. That would certainly explain the incoherence between the realist style of the two men and the more painterly style of the background, for instance, and the artificial, studio-like quality of light on the naked women of both Le Déjeuner and Olympia, which Howards suggests was inspired by the flatness and reduced tonal contrasts of photography (Howard, 17).

It is a common misconception that Manet was an Impressionist painter, likely due to his eclectic handling of paint and tone and the different light effects. A true Impressionist, by definition, was one who painted quickly and en plein air to capture the transient effects of light (Chu, 388). As we can see by the highly artificial-looking light of Manet’s figures, the artist painted in his studio and not under the changing light of the sun. However, his new techniques of coloring and brushwork indeed inspired the Impressionist group in Paris (Chu, 388). They likely admired the confident looseness of each brushstroke and the choppiness of his works. Likely, too, is that the flatness of his figures inspired the flatness of Cézanne’s work, which paved the way to many other modern art movements (Clark, 12-13). Manet, indeed, had started an artistic revolution.

Édouard Manet was somewhat of a defiant painter. Despite his formal training, he painted subjects that were original, in a style that he had conceived. He shocked the public with an avant-garde portrayal of a prostitute, he played with the different effects of light and proportion, he ignored the rules of idealization. Most of all, like the de-sexualized, ‘ugly’ women in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, Manet did not give the public what they wanted, and that’s probably why he was well known in his time and to audiences today. This deliberate rejection of artistic standards allowed his followers to experiment with their own personal styles, which in turn led to a plethora of diverse works and art movements. Manet ignored tradition and instead focused on what was right in front of him: a new, modern, world.


  1. Bernheimer, Charles. “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” Poetics Today, vol. 10, no. 2, 1989, pp. 255–277. JSTOR, JSTOR,

  2. Chu, Petra Ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-century European Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Print.

  3. Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

  4. Howard, Seymour. “Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting.” Art Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 1977, pp. 14–21. JSTOR, JSTOR,

  5. Turner, Jane, et al. “Manet.” The Dictionary of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

  6. Wilson-Bareau, Juliet. Manet by Himself. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Print.

List of Images

  1. Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 cm x 325 cm. Louvre, Paris.

  2. Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre, Paris.

  3. Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1850. Oil on canvas, 315 cm x 660 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

  4. Édouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859. Oil on canvas, 180 cm x 106 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

  5. Édouard Manet, The Spanish Singer, 1860. Oil on canvas, 147 cm x 114 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

  6. Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863. Oil on canvas, 208 cm x 264 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

  7. Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Oil on canvas, 130 cm x 190 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

  8. Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538. Oil on canvas, 119 cm x 165 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

  9. Édouard Manet, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1882. Oil on canvas, 96 cm x 130 cm. Courtauld Gallery, London.




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