Thursday, September 28, 2023

Art Eyewitness Review: Manet/Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art



Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 24, 2023 - January 7, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Every ten years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents an epic, "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition devoted to Impressionism. Occasionally, the curators at the Met show two "show-stopper" Impressionist-era exhibits in quick succession. 2023 is one such banner year. 

Van Gogh's Cypresses had hardly completed its three month run on August 27, than an even bigger blockbuster, Manet/Degas, took center stage at 82nd and Fifth Avenue. Building on the Met's rich holdings of paintings and works-on-paper by these celebrated French artists, the Metropolitan curators cast their net and hauled in spectacular loans from museums in the U.S. and Europe. The Musée d’Orsay – where a version of Manet/Degas was shown a few months earlier – was particularly generous in sharing its treasures. 

Manet/Degas can trace its pedigree to an "ancestry" of Impressionist exhibitions which no other U.S. museum can match. 

The succession of "once-in-a-lifetime" shows at the Met began with the centennial retrospective, Manet, in 1983. I made it to this exhibit, elbowing my way through throngs of art lovers to behold Manet's final masterwork, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which was making a very rare visit to the U.S. from London's Courtauld Institute.

Al Mozell, Photo (1983)
 Gallery view of the 1983 Manet retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ten years - and a few months - later, two spectacular Impressionist exhibits were shown at the Met in 1994. These were Degas Landscapes and Origins of Impressionism. I missed seeing these shows, but, on the basis of studying the catalog of Origins, it is a certitude that they were in the grand Met tradition.

                                       Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)                                        Édouard Manet's Lola de Valance,1862

In 2003, Manet/Velzquez traced the Spanish roots of French 19th century art, and in 2013, Impressionism: Fashion and Modernity matched the haute couture of the age of Manet and Degas with some of the most beloved paintings by these masters of Impressionism and colleagues including Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte.  

I won't try to further describe these earlier Met exhibits because I'm going to need a full supply of superlatives for Manet/Degas. Given the enthusiastic response at the press preview, the Met's exhibition history is about to repeat itself. I am already bracing myself for the "throngs of art lovers" which I encountered back in 1983, 2003 and 2013.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 )
 Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit
 showing Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, 1868–69

The relationship of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is a classic case of the attraction of opposites. Manet was charismatic, competitive and radical in politics and in art. Degas, an introvert by nature and often abrasive in his personal opinions, was generous in his support of fellow painters, especially women artists like Mary Cassatt.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Edgar Degas’ Visit to the Museum, 1879-90

It is to be expected that many visitors to Manet/Degas will debate the relative merits of the two French artists. The Met exhibition is exceptionally thorough in its inclusion of major works from all stages of their respective careers. If one is inclined to make comparisons, with a "Best Artist" award in mind, there are plenty of paintings and drawings to support a judgement, pro or con, Manet or Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit showing Edgar Degas'
 The Bellelli Family, 1858-69, on the far wall.

It is better, I feel, to consider the relationship of Manet and Degas as one of synergy, not competition. They addressed similar or contrasting themes, if not in tandem, then certainly in reaction - to each other and to the world around them. Appraising each other's works and acutely conscious of the spirit of their times, Manet and Degas played pivotal roles in creating the matrix of modern art.

The careers of Manet and Degas are entangled by irony. Manet paved the way to Impressionism while refusing to participate in the Impressionist salons held between 1874 to 1886. Degas was one of the most energetic organizers of these group exhibitions, yet he regarded himself a "realist" and a disciple of the great advocate of meticulous drawing, Jean August Dominique Ingres. What Ingres would have thought about Degas' late-career monotype prints, some of which come close to abstract art, can hardly be imagined.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Detail of Edgar Degas’ Racehorses before the Stands, 1866–68

Degas' early works, as we will discuss, certainly show the influence of classical French art. But, by the time he died in 1917, old and nearly blind, Degas had created some of the most innovative works of art of the nineteenth century. Manet, despite his early death, left a formidable body of paintings and prints. While some are surprisingly indifferent in quality, others like his portrait of Emile Zola are worthy rivals of the Old Masters.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868

Manet/Degas abounds in its presentation of Impressionist masterpieces, works you've seen time and again in reproduction. I thought at times that I was walking through the pages of an art history text rather than a museum gallery!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863-65

Exhibit "A" in Manet/Degas is Olympia,.Manet's uncompromising nude is still a work which can stop you in your tracks.But, situated among other great paintings by Manet and Degas, it no longer exhales the breath of scandal. Rather, in the words of the great art critic, John Canaday, Olympia "a picture of a common girl, happens to be one of the most elegant paintings of its century ..."

Olympia was also uncompromisingly honest, as we can see in the expression of Victorine Meurent, who modeled for Manet. These are eyes that have seen how the world  - the real world - works.

As Canaday further noted, Manet's challenged the smug hypocrisy of France under the regime of Napoleon III. Manet was simply being truthful about the society of his era. Paris in the mid-1800's had 200 officially registered houses of prostitution, some of which were sponsored by the French government for the benefit of foreign dignitaries like the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. 

The French political and cultural elite were not pleased to see the reality of life so clinically revealed.  Manet was subjected to prolonged censure and condemnation which cast a shadow over his prospects for years to come. 

Degas, after a false start doing allegorical paintings, followed Manet's example. His portrait of a working class woman drowning her sorrows in a glass of absinthe, is one of the great examples of high art serving as social commentary.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Detail of Edgar Degas' In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875–76

Both Manet and Degas aspired to be a "painter of modern life", a form of social activism outlined in the 1863 essay by Charles Baudelaire, whom we shall meet later. The Manet/Degas exhibition brilliantly illustrates how these two artists of genius approached that role.

Early in the 1860's, Manet met Degas at the Louvre where the later was working on an etching after a portrait by Velazquez. There could not have been a better way to foster a friendly rivalry than a shared fascination with the art of the great seventeenth century Spanish master. 

"Good clean work," Manet declared approvingly of Velazquez' painterly technique, "It puts you off the brown-sauce school."

"Brown sauce" or "gravy" was the dismissive rebuke which young artists of the 1860's hurled at the somber-toned, heavily varnished paintings favored at the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. On that point, Manet and Degas could agree, but only a few years later, an incredibly cruel and thoughtless act by Manet imperiled their relationship.

One evening, Degas attended a musical recital during which Manet's wife, Suzanne, a talented pianist, performed. Degas decided to surprise the Manets with a double portrait of them, painted from memory. Suzanne was shown at the keyboard with Manet lounging on a sofa absorbed by the music. It was a touching gesture from a man who usually guarded his emotions.

Edgar Degas 
 Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, 1868–69
Courtesy of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum

Manet was not impressed by the painting and - after Degas departed - he slashed the portrait of Suzanne with a penknife, discarding what he considered a "defamation" of his wife's features. Manet then portrayed Suzanne in a similar pose - no doubt to show Degas how it should have been done. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Madam Manet at the Piano, ca. 1868-68

Needless to say, Degas was deeply hurt by this act. He demanded the "offending" painting back and returned a still life that Manet had given him.

Historians are still puzzled by this incident. Degas' portrait of Manet was not particularly accomplished, especially when compared to the superb sketches which Degas often made of Manet. Perhaps the likeness of Suzanne Manet was not up to Degas' usual standards, either. But the painting had been created from memory, no easy task, and it was given as an act of friendship.

Only an artist possessed of self-assured arrogance and undoubted talent could have reacted in such an insensitive way to Degas' generous gift. Perhaps the brutalizing effect of the criticism Manet had received over Olympia was a factor in his appalling treatment of Degas.

Making the "best of a bad business", the Met's curators replicated the oblique slash on Degas' painting as one of the signature images of the exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition, 
showing self-portraits by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas

This "slash" motif is - literally - a brilliant stroke. But it is more than a clever way  of evoking a serious, if temporary, hiatus in the relationship of Manet and Degas. Rather, this slash symbolizes the era in which these two artists lived. The age of Impressionism, the 1870's and 80's in France, was a period of war and social strife, of cannon fire and crashing banks.

The incident of the defaced painting likely occurred in 1868 or 1869. A year later, Manet and Degas joined France's National Guard, defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71. Their rapprochement was one of the few positive results of that disastrous war for France.

Despite the heroism of the National Guard, German siege artillery smashed the defensive positions surrounding Paris. The fall of Paris in February 1871 was followed by the uprising of left-wing radicals and embittered Parisian workers known as the Commune. The revolt was crushed by the newly-installed Third Republic with the loss of 30,000 fatalities. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Manet/Degas showing
 Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, ca.1867–68.

Manet recorded the street fighting and subsequent executions in a series of prints, but, curiously, he reused the figures of a firing squad from his paintings of the execution of the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. The version of Manet's depiction of Maximilian's death from the National Gallery in London (above) is on view in Manet/Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Detail of Édouard Manet’s The Barricades, ca. 1871, published 1884

In conflating the execution of Maximilian with that of the Communards, Manet was not being the least bit derivative. Instead, he was making a statement. The deaths in one war often lead to another - and he would be proven correct, as the effects of the Franco-Prussian War contributed directly to the outbreak of World War I.

Manet's interest in contemporary events was matched by his comrade from the siege of Paris. Degas, however, chose a less dramatic subject, but one of immense importance: the day-to-day workings of the capitalist economic system. 

In the autumn of 1872, Degas traveled to New Orleans. Degas' family had large-scale investments in the U.S. cotton industry. Degas uncle, Michel Musson, was an important cotton broker in New Orleans. After visiting his uncle's office, Degas painted two scenes, rare, accurate depictions of business operations, modern for its time. The first is of greater historical significance, the second  important for artistic reasons.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Edgar Degas' A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Degas' first painting is a carefully composed study of his uncle's cotton brokerage in action. The placement and interaction of the office staff and local businessmen  are so perfectly posed as to appear choreographed. The features of each man is delineated with precision and insight recalling the famous portrait drawings by Ingres from the 1820's and 30's. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of  A Cotton Office in New Orleans

The second, less famous work was Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museum. Seemingly without incident, this oil painting on linen shows the influence of Japanese art on Degas, Manet and many other French artists who came of age after the opening of Japan to the West in 1853. The dramatic cropping and placing the pictorial action in the foreground of the painting make participants of those who study it more than observers. Here, in this picture, we can see the first stirrings of modern art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Edgar Degas' Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, 1873

Degas ventured to New Orleans to appraise his family's business prospects rather than to study art. He had every reason to be concerned. Cotton was no longer "king" as it had been before the Civil War in America. Hardly had Degas returned to France in the spring of 1873 than a world-wide economic panic began. The brittle finances of France were particularly hard-hit. The Degas family bank eventually sank in a sea of red ink in 1876.

 France during the age of Impressionism confronted adversity at every turn. In addition to repeated bank failures and the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, the populace of France faced a litany of daily woes. Even the wine harvests were blighted - by a parasitic insect, the Phylloxera aphid, unwittingly imported from America!

The environmental effects of industrialization was even more damaging. Factory chimneys and plumes of smoke issuing from locomotives are a background feature of many Impressionist paintings. These are the tell-tale signs of erosion of the quality of life in France, which can be traced demographically. After inching upward earlier in the nineteenth century, the average life expectancy in France stalled in 1850 at the age of 43 and did not reach 45 until 1900

Manet lived eight years longer than the national average, but the 1870's and 1880's was a time of troubles for French men and women of all classes. The haunted eyes and careworn expressions on the faces of many of the individuals painted by Manet and Degas confirm this. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Edgar Degas’ Violinist and Young Woman, ca. 1871 

Two other protagonists in the Impressionist saga, very important to Manet, shared his fate of having their lives cut short, while being at the height of their creative powers. These were Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), ca. 1871
Berthe Morisot was an intimate friend and, most probably, an unrequited lover of Manet. There was obviously some degree of "chemistry" between them. And there are so many sensational portraits of Morisot by Manet in the Met's exhibition that it might justly have been entitled Manet/Degas/Morisot!

Charles Baudelaire's name might well be tagged on to the title, too, so important were his ideas and observations on the place of the artist in modern French society. But we will reserve the contributions of Baudelaire, Morisot and others to the inter-woven careers of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas for an additional essay to appear shortly in Art Eyewitness. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Manet/Degas, showing a seascape by Édouard Manet
 and Edgar Degas’ New Orleans scenes

To close this present review, let us avail ourselves of Degas' verdict on Manet and apply it to him as well. And while we are at it, let us accord this accolade to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay. 

Manet, Degas declared as he left the funeral service for his friend and rival "was greater than we thought." 

Greater than we thought.

True for Manet. True for Degas. And true for the curators of Manet/Degas.  


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:                                                                                                                       Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.

Al Mozell, Photo (1983) Gallery view of the 1983 Manet retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Lola de Valance, 1862. Oil on canvas: 48 1/8  x 36 ¼  inches (123 x 92 cm) Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit showing  Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, 1868–69.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas’ Visit to the Museum, 1879-90. Oil on canvas: 36 1/8 x 26 3/4 inches (91.8 x 68 cm) Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas showing Edgar Degas' The Bellelli Family, 1858-69, on the far wall.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Edgar Degas’ Racehorses before the Stands,1866–68. Oil on paper mounted on canvas: 18 1/8 x 24 in. (46 x 61 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868. Oil on canvas: 57 1/2 x 44 7/8 inches (146 x 114 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863-65. Oil on canvas: 51 3/8 x 75 3/16 inches (130.5 x 191 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Edgar Degas In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875–76. Oil on canvas: 36 1/4 x 26 15/16 in. (92 x 68.5 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, 1868–69. Oil on canvas: 25 9/16 x 27 15/16 in. (65 x 71 cm) Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art Photo: Courtesy of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 Édouard Manet’s Madam Manet at the Piano, ca. 1868-68. Oil on canvas: 15 3/16 x 18 15/16 in. (38.5 x 46.5 cm)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art., showing self-portraits by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of Manet/Degas showing Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, ca.1867–68. Oil on canvas: 76 in. x 9 ft. 3 13/16 in. (193 x 284 cm) The National Gallery, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Édouard Manet’s The Barricades, ca. 1871, published 1884. Lithograph on chine colle: 18 5/16 x 13 1/8 in. (46.5 x 33.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas' A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873. Oil on canvas: 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (73 x 92 cm) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, France.  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas' Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, 1873. Oil on linen: 23 1/8 x 28 ¼ in. (58.7 x 71.8 cm) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas’ Violinist and Young Woman, ca. 1871. Oil and crayon on canvas: 18 ¼ x 22 inches (46.4 x 55.9 cm.) Detroit Institute of Arts.    

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), ca. 1871. Oil-on-canvas: 59 1/8 x 44 7/8 inches (150.2 x 114 cm) Rhode Island School of Design.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibition, showing a seascape by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas’ New Orleans Cotton Office scenes.


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