Portraits by Edouard Manet are finishing a run at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio and heading for the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Just a glance makes clear that he liked to paint family and friends in unceremonious ways. And to animate them, his brushwork was like a high pile carpet vigorously applied and free.
By these brushwork and informality of his portraits alone, you can tell he was a rebel. An incident in his early life as a cadet in the French merchant marine foretells his rebellious side:
“We were coming to the end of the voyage, and we noticed that our cargo of Dutch cheese has been damaged by the water. The rinds had become bleached, and that was a worry. I volunteered to put matters right, and conscientiously, with a shaving brush, I touched up the pale corpses, and brought them to life again. That was my beginning as a painter.”
Obviously, Manet had hubris. Talking of Impressionist Berthe Morisot, who was married to his brother, he said, ”My sister-in-law wouldn’t have been noticed without me.“
He wasn’t the only painter who put women painters down. Renoir derided them as “ridiculous five-legged calves.” What did Morisot think of such put-downs?
“I don’t think there’s ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal,” she said. “And that’s all I would have asked, for I know I’m worth as much as they.”
Given Manet’s attitude toward Morisot, you’d wouldn’t think that he’d paint a work that may be said to have started the sexual revolution http://rootshed.com/article/how-sexism-can-cloud-the-picture and maybe feminist, too.
The painting shows two clothed men and a nude woman picnicking under the oaks and chestnut trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and it shocked Parisian society. Even Emperor Napoleon III, who was hardly a paragon of decency, called it “indecent.” Certainly it wasn’t the nudity of the female, given the innumerable paintings of nude women through history.
The shocker was that the woman was the well-known artist’s model and painter Victorine Meurend. What’s more, she boldly stares back at you, as if you were intruding. “Yes? What are you looking at?” she seems to ask over her shoulder, her face direct and challenging.
Clearly, it wasn’t Meurend’s nudity that offended; it was her lack of the usual reticence of naked females in art. This one was actively engaged in conversation with men in public.
Compare this to another painting of two clothed males and a pair of naked females, 15th-century painter Giorgione’s “Concert Champetre.” Here, the women are waiting on the men and talking only to each other. Manet’s version, then, painted out the double standard, replacing it with a woman in a social relationship with her male companions – minus the female passivity, vulnerability and the playing out of all male fantasies known to art history.
Makes you wonder who the real Manet was – the one who put down Morisot or the one who raised up Meurend.