Exhibition review: Manet, Portraying Life - Royal Academy, London

Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) by Edouard Manet
Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) by Edouard Manet
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Though there are a couple of significant omissions, this collection of Manet’s portraits reminds us of his ability to capture, better than photography, the soul of the subject in everyday settings

Manet, Portraying Life

Royal Academy, London

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MANET was born in Paris in 1842. He died there, aged just 51, in 1883. The following year a memorial exhibition was held in the École des Beaux Arts. It’s on the Left Bank just a stone’s throw from the house where he was born.

In the exhibition Manet: Portraying Life, there is a huge map of Manet’s Paris. Except those two events, everything marked on the map is on the Right Bank, north of the Seine. Not for Manet la vie de Bohème of a Left Bank radical. His was the new Paris built along the boulevards bulldozed through the old city by Baron Haussmann. Paintings of Manet’s family reveal a comfortable bourgeois life. Two self-portraits and several photographs show him good-looking, smart and well-dressed. Public recognition should have been his birthright, but his painting was radical even if he was not. He was eventually made a member of the Légion d’honneur, but only shortly before his death

Portraits of his friends include notable radicals and it was from them that he received most support. Nevertheless, he steadfastly refused to join the Impressionists, although Monet was a friend; a painting of the Monet family in their garden is one of the most charming things here.

Instead Manet regularly submitted work to the Salon, showplace of the establishment. Nor was he always rejected. It was there, for instance, that in 1865 Olympia, one of his most provocative pictures created a scandal. His model, Victorine Meurent, is naked on a bed. A black servant brings her a bouquet of flowers. Victorine does not recede into the cosy, asexual fiction of the classical nude, however. Her eyes challenge us as if to say, “Yes, the flowers are from an admirer and, yes, what he admires is exactly what you see” – dynamite to bourgeois propriety. There was a twist to the provocation too. Manet’s model was Titian. He was redoing the classics in modern dress, or in this case, undress.

This painting is by far the greatest example of the theme of this exhibition: that Manet was essentially a portrait painter, but that he used the portrait in novel ways that reflected new ideas. There are formal portraits here, informal portraits and pictures which, like Olympia, are of real people, but are not conventional portraits at all. But, alas, Olympia is not here, although a room is devoted to Victorine Meurent.

Nor are the other two prime examples of this approach, Le Balcon and A Bar at the Folies Bergères, although it hangs nearby in the Courtauld Collection. A lovely full-size study of one of the girls in Le Balcon only makes its absence seem more acute. Without these pictures the exhibition does limp a little. It is a book with an introduction and footnotes, but missing several crucial chapters.

Some of the pictures are just footnotes too, works he chose never to exhibit, a couple even finished after his death. Still it would be hard to select a show of Manet that was all duds. Some of the formal portraits are stiff. The informal are not. The most vivid is of the painter Berthe Morisot wearing a black hat and black scarf. In a second portrait she’s wearing a high collar, white feathers in her piled up hair, and is carrying a muff. Manet paints her almost sketchily, but the lack of finish reads as immediacy, as transience. Seen in profile, we glimpse a beautiful woman passing by, unaware of us. The picture is at once unfinished and complete.

It is the economy that makes these pictures so alive. Their bravura might also be a deliberate challenge to photography. Manet was certainly interested. He made an album of cartes de visite photographs, for instance, and a portrait of Georges Clemenceau is directly dependent on a photograph, but the point is not his dependence, rather how photography inspired him to demonstrate the superiority of painting. And he did. No photograph could match the animation he achieves; and while the photograph was still formal, Manet showed just how informal painting could be. We see this in portraits of his friends and supporters which fill two rooms, of Émile Zola, for instance, and even more in that of poet Stephane Mallarmé, relaxing with a cigar.

In the second portrait of Berthe Morisot and again in Victorine Meurent as a Street Singer, Manet again trumps photography. When it was still too slow, he pioneered the snapshot, the unexplained fragment of a stranger’s life.

In The Street Singer, Victorine Meurent is caught by a shaft of sunlight in a shop doorway. She is carrying a guitar and eating fruit from a paper. This is what Baudelaire called la vie moderne. She is anonymous, just part of the flow of life through the streets, but in that flood of humanity, she also remains individual, particular and private. Her life is her own, but her individuality is enigmatic too. In a portrait, Manet paints her looking coolly at us, withdrawn and unknowable, an ordinary modern girl, but remote as any Renaissance princess. It seems to have been her cool gaze that fascinated him, as though her self-possession were a token of the irreducible, private unit from which the city’s anonymous crowds are composed. In The Railway, seated against a railing and holding a book and a puppy, she returns our glance as though challenging our curiosity. Beside her a child in a blue party dress is looking through the railings towards the railway shrouded in steam. In such a beautiful picture, we expect narrative, but neither she nor Manet’s composition offer any more explanation than a casual passerby might be able to deduce.

Two pictures that are key to the exhibition in the absence of Olympia – both from nearby – are the National Gallery’s Music in the Tuileries and the Courtauld’s version of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe – Manet’s most scandalous picture, in which Victorine again appears with nothing on, this time in company of two clothed gentlemen. It is a beautiful picture, but, much smaller than the original which was intended for the Salon, it cannot have the same impact. Music in the Tuileries is relatively small too, but in it Manet included himself, members of his family and a range of his friends. It is the epitome of la vie moderne, but hung in a room by itself it is dwarfed both by the space and by the effort to assert its importance in the absence of its bigger companions.

Manet was a great painter and a radical one, but he was not invariably innovative and was also very conscious of tradition. Looked at as variations on the portrait in the way the show invites us to do, these pictures suggest all sorts of resonances with the past. Genre pictures, like The Street Singer, that are also portraits went back to the 17th century. What was new was the sense of the modern urban context in which Manet set them.

The key to the way he did that – and, as we are in Scotland, what also links Manet to Raeburn – is his vision: his concern to differentiate between what we see and what we know; to put down on canvas what the eye registers before the brain imposes its own expectations.

The eye is neutral, the brain judges. The conventions of art reflect its judgements far more than they do the eye’s neutrality. Liberating the eye, Manet brought its neutrality to the vision of modern life that he shared with his great contemporaries some of whose portraits are on these walls. Modern art was born in that liberation. Manet played a pivotal role in it, but it had begun before him just as it continued after him.

• Until 14 April