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Manet Portraying Life: a pioneering portrait of a real and changing world

This article is over 8 years, 11 months old
A new exhibition of Edouard Manet’s paintings focuses on his social circle, but the details take his work beyond tradition, writes Siobhan Brown
Issue 2339

It is a happy coincidence that Manet, Portraying Life opened as the musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is on in cinemas across Britain.

Both Edouard Manet and Hugo lived in France during its turbulent 19th century.

They experienced war, uprising and revolution.

But whereas Hugo presented the working class of Paris suffering at the time, Manet’s work has a different focus.

Manet was born in 1832 to a middle class Parisian family.

His work usually sees him as an observer rather than an activist and it reflects the rise of bourgeois Paris.

His paintings are pioneering in presenting the real and changing world that he lived in.

Manet did paint Paris’s poor, but this exhibition focuses largely on the work that presents his family and social circle.

Renowned for his portraiture, Manet’s sheer talent as a visual artist runs through this show.

His use of brushstroke and of colour is strikingly brilliant.


Manet had an immense ability to present the changing nature of Paris during the 19th century.

This is shown in his masterpiece Music in the Tuileries Garden, painted in 1862.

It is both a group portrait and a comment on what life was like for Manet and his contemporaries.

One highlight is his portrait of fellow artist Eva Gonzales, who is shown working on a painting in her own studio.

Another is Street Singer, which shows a young woman with a guitar eating grapes in the street, and The Railway.

The portrait of Manet’s friend Emile Zola appears traditional as it shows the writer in his study with his pens. But Manet added details—such as Zola holding one of his favourite books that show that he appreciated Zola’s support in the face of hostile critics.

Some reviews have focused on the intrigue surrounding the personal relationships behind the paintings.

This seems to be a mistake. The more fascinating stories are those that Manet touches on as he presents a small section of a changing society.

Manet: Portraying Life is on at the Royal Academy of Arts in central London until 14 April.

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