There are few artists more qualified to be called "the first modern artist" than Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Although he never considered himself to be an Impressionist painter, and never showed his works at the group's exhibitions, the Impressionists themselves looked to him as a highly respected leader of their movement, and he regularly joined their discussions at the Cafe Guerbois, near his Paris studio, along with Claude Monet, Camille Pisarro, Edgar Degas, Renoir and others.
What these younger artists found inspiring in Manet's work was a firm break with accepted traditions of art on two fronts. Manet abandoned the idea that art's subject matter must be of the past, and that it should typically show an idealized view of its figures and scenes. Instead, he painted scenes of contemporary Paris and people he knew. At the same time, many of his best works violated the "rules" of stylistic realism, causing critics to howl.
"The Absinthe Drinker" (1859)
The first painting Manet submitted to the annual juried Salon in Paris, 1859, was rejected. "The Absinthe Drinker" shows what appears to be a man of the modern Paris slums -- hardly a subject the crowds who attended the Salon would appreciate.
Although it is the portrait of an eccentric lower-class subject, ostensibly an alcoholic, the man has a rather jaunty, even defiant air. And although it doesn't depict Manet, who was born into a well-to-do family, the subject wears a top hat, something which Manet himself never failed to don when he went out. Earlier versions and drafts of the painting show the subject seated, and are strikingly similar to a portrait of the artist Raphael (1483-1520), where instead of a glass of liquor on the bench, there are small pots of paint beside the artist. In fact, Manet's painting can be seen as a self-portrait of his alter-ego. While `Manet the man` was always impeccably dressed, a modern Parisian "flaneur", it is perhaps in this first submission to the Salon that he shows `Manet the artist` -- the inner man, drunk with the spirit of creativity, and therefore confidently, even defiantly at odds with upper-class conventions.
"Music in the Tuileries" (1862)
Manet believed that acceptance in the Salon was essential for an artist`s career. However, "Music in the Tuileries" (1862), shows even more clearly that Manet was painting on his own terms, not directly for approval of the academy. This canvas shows people of his own high-society crowd at an outdoor concert. There is no clear central subject, and the loose brushwork is a long way from the tradition of finely finished realism the Salon was used to. In the lower right corner, Manet`s signature appears to be partly obstructed from view by the legs of a chair. It`s a small detail, but a clear statement about the illusory nature of art -- a deception which, for hundreds of years previously, tradition had said must be unacknowledged within the work itself.
"Luncheon on the Grass" (1863)
In 1863, the Salon rejected half the works submitted, so a second showing, of the all the works that had not been accepted, was organized. One of these, Manet`s "Luncheon on the Grass," created a storm of public controversy. It's hard for us today to imagine how nudity in art could be so controversial when it had been quite a common, accepted part of artistic practise since the Renaissance. But the crowds who visited the "Salon de Refuses" in 1863 did not see any nymphs or mythical figures in "Luncheon". Instead, they saw a modern woman, naked and staring directly back at them. Moreover, she was imperfect, an individual in a way that was new in depictions of female nudes. It could easily be interpreted, and widely was, as depicting a scene of two prostitutes and their male clients in the Bois de Boulogne, a well-known place for such encounters -- well-known, yet not to be mentioned in polite society. It was the way Manet depicted nudity in a modern setting that was so shocking it left viewers entirely perplexed, or convinced the intention was obscene.
Although this "shocking" nudity was a large part of the work`s notoriety, "Luncheon on the Grass" was also hard to accept in other ways. The scene`s lighting is flat; it has a deliberate lack of accurate perspective, and an absence of mid-tones; there is no real attempt to hide brush strokes. The press in general, and art critics in particular, were merciless in their condemnation. Yet it is an ironic truth that, despite his desire for acceptance by the Salon, the controversy surrounding the officially rejected "Luncheon" did more to make Manet`s reputation as an artist than any other of his works. It is considered by many to be his greatest painting.
Aside from young painters like Monet and Renoir, another contemporary who championed Manet`s work was Emile Zola, who declared "Luncheon" to be the artist`s greatest work. Zola understood that in some important ways, 'an artist paints himself.'
"The crowd has kept itself moreover from judging The Luncheon on the Grass like a veritable work of art should be judged; . . . Painters, especially Edouard Manet, . . . do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists. . . . It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him."
Manet focused on the life he saw around him in Paris, a city that was undergoing large-scale renovations and redesign at the time. His vision was an individual one -- eccentric, innovative, unbound by tradition, and valuing art as an expression of the artist, more than as a finely crafted illusion. Manet's vision was inspiring to the young painters who developed Impressionism, as well as generations of the artists we call 'Modern' who followed them. His paintings, and the work of those he influenced, are some of the most popular modern art prints people buy and enjoy to this day.