Edouard Manet: The Painter of Modern Life

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The French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire wrote a highly influential essay entitled 'The Painter of Modern Life.' This essay can be used to elucidate the work of Edouard Manet.

It is surprising that in his essay Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne Charles Baudelaire chose to express his theories on contemporary art through continued reference to the works of Constantin Guys, rather than to those of Manet.  Nevertheless, Baudelaire's essay is brilliantly illuminated by Manet's art.  This is clearly evidenced in four of Manet's major works, Déjeuner sur L'herbe, Boating, Argenteuil and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Contemplation of these paintings, their unconventional, sometimes incendiary subject matter, and the deployment of techniques they exhibit, helps us reach an understanding of the direct correlation between them and Baudelaire's critique. 

At the centre of Baudelaire's argument is a debate about the inter-relation of two concepts, beauty and modernity. Beauty, he insists, has a dual nature, two elements have been integrated to compose the complete concept: an 'eternal, invariable' element and a 'relative, circumstantial' one. He attests that the first is extremely difficult to define, while the second is frequently 'the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions'. He relates this theory of beauty to the practice of art by classifying the 'ephemeral', 'fugitive' contingent of beauty as 'Modernity', 'the half of art whose other half is the eternal, and the immutable'. Thus, all artists are obliged by necessity to include something of both elements in their works, because 'without this second element . . . the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature'.

Baudelaire offers an antithesis to Sir Joshua Reynolds Discourses. In the third of these Reynolds claimed 'the whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists … in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particulars and details of any kind.' This presumably includes the relative circumstantial elements that comprise modernity. In Baudelaire's view, it is incorrect to assume that, say, the classical and renaissance works that Reynolds admired, possess only the eternal, invariable contingent of beauty;

his pantheon of great artists had not, in fact, succeeded in liberating their works from all the particulars and details as he claimed. If they had done so, Baudelaire says, their art would have been rendered unpalatable and irrelevant. The reason these works can be admired is that they embody the dual nature of beauty; they succeed in uniting the two elements cohesively, rather than being general and therefore universal as Reynolds saw them.

The reason for this is that 'every old master has had his own modernity; the majority of fine portraits … from former generations … are clothed in the costume of their own period'; and it is therefore detrimental to art for a modern artist to ignore the signs of the present modernity and ostentatiously dress his subjects in those of a former, grander age, for this denies the ephemeral, fluctuating element, which is one half of beauty: 'If for the necessary and inevitable costume of the age you substitute another, you will be guilty of a mistranslation.' This is in keeping with Baudelaire's view of life as necessarily harmonious, in the sense that every aspect of life corresponds to every other, though explicitly they may seem different.

Thus Baudelaire makes an impassioned plea for artists not to neglect the modernity in which they live. As if in response, Manet created the four paintings of modern life - Déjeuner sur L'herbe, Boating, Argenteuil and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - which, in their themes and subject matter seem, along with a variety of his other works, to have originated in Baudelaire's essay.

Déjeuner sur L'herbe seeks to encapsulate the modern world in a way appropriate to Manet's deliberate break with tradition. To make this distinction between the modern world and its predecessors, with their respective traditions, he chooses a deliberately 'classical' subject: the painting of nudes is a long held tradition in the art world.

His primary concern is the problem of reconciling modernity - its fashions, societies, and obsessions - with the classical tradition of depicting nudes. His handling of the painting as a commentary on this problem is evidenced by its self-conscious resemblance to Raphael's Judgment of Paris (observe the profound similarity between the poses of Raphael's figures and Manet's). In the Louvre at the time Manet was painting Déjeuner was Concert Champêtre by the 16th century Venetian artist Giorgione, which also deals with a nude in the presence of men in contemporary dress. Manet was surely familiar with these works (having seen Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after the Judgement of Paris) and it is convenient to imagine that they must have influenced his choice of subject when making his departure from conservative traditions.

The resemblance between his painting and Raphael's leads us to see Déjeuner as a firm statement of intent: he has taken a general, conventional subject and updated it to give it relevance to the modern world. That he chose such a provocative subject, which could so easily lead to offence, only intensifies the pageant of modernity that it displays.

The subjects are two men dressed in the costumes of respectable gentlemen of the late 19th century, and two women, one partially clothed and bathing herself in the pool in the background, the other nude. This last figure is not, in fact, a nude in the classical tradition, rather she is merely a woman undressed, and not sufficiently idealised to elevate her from the realm of everyday human existence to that inhabited by the nymphs and goddesses of classical mythology. It is this that so infuriated polite society when they first surveyed the painting in the 1863 Salon des Refusés.

The painting clearly alludes to sexual activity between the protagonists, accomplishing this in several ways: the interlocking of the central characters' legs and the man's rather propositional gesture, the woman's pensive pose, not unlike Rodin's The Thinker, as she turns her head toward us and seems to be seeking our opinion; the basket apparently full of oranges, and various fruits distributed carelessly around the scene could be read as part of a time-honoured programme of symbolism, signifying pleasures of the flesh; the woman occupying the background washes herself in the pool of water - implying purification.

The nude herself was particularly offensive to crowds who saw the painting. Alexandre Cabarel's Birth of Venus was exhibited in the Salon at the same time as Déjeuner, winning its author the Legion d'Honneur, and was purchased by the Emperor himself. Its treatment of a mythological event is far removed from classical tradition; the figure has the voluptuous pulchritude of a Titian, and she swoons ecstatically on a bed of lasciviously lapping waves forming sheets beneath her reclining body.

This painting's success proves that the outrage caused by Déjeuner cannot solely be attributed to its erotic content. The reason Venus did not transgress the bounds of decency was that the figure was excessively idealised, and thereby elevated from the modern and mundane world in which people dress and undress. Déjeuner, by contrast, shows four obviously modern figures, set in the landscape, not of a mythological realm, but of a real Parisian setting - the boat in the background locates the scene squarely in the real world. The figure of the nude was too realistic and overtly modern for contemporary spectators: her countenance and pose are not the langorous ones of Cabarel's painting; she is alert, candid, indignant; she holds the viewer steadily in her almost aggressive gaze, made all the more conspicuous because she is the only figure who does so. She is not nude but unclothed - her nudity is not the discrete, hypothetic nudity of repeated paintings because her clothes lie on the grass next to her.

There are further intimations of modernity which must have lain almost dormant to crowds transfixed with rage as they meandered through the Salon des Refusés and encountered such 'indecency'. These modern traits operate almost subliminally on the viewer's consciousness, but nevertheless serve to distinguish this painting from those in the classical tradition. The picture has the synthetic crispness and bold delineation of form common in photographs, a distinctly modern phenomenon that was gaining popularity at the time.

Manet would have been acutely aware of this new technology through his association with the photographer Nadar, a member of Manet's 'court', and chose to incorporate its influence into his style. This is clearly seen in the stark contrast of light and dark, which gives the picture the mood of that most modern of pictorial methods, and which is given full emphasis by superimposing the woman's almost white form over the man's dark jacket. Another photographic inclination of the painting is present in the form of a bird - in flight, since its wings are spread. This is a clear allusion to photography's power of creating instantaneous images, and mirrors the whole effect of the painting - capturing an instant of the elusive and ever changing modernity, and preserving it.

It is through these aspects that the painting succeeds in conveying a sense of modernity. It also incorporates Baudelaire's harmonious world view and, for all its outward modernity, does not omit the eternal element: it is rooted in the historical tradition of painting and is fully aware of its place on the grand scale of artistic evolution. Indeed, Manet did not see himself as the modernist revolutionary that he has often been implicated as.

Like Déjeuner, Argenteuil is a record of a petit-bourgeois passion - this time boating, (previously it was picnicing). It is a 'sketch of manners,' according to Baudelaire's definition: 'the depiction of bourgeois life and the pageant of fashion'. This term could be applied to all four of these paintings, and indeed to the vast majority of Manet's works, which depict figures from contemporary society, engaged in their everyday activities. In subject matter it calls to mind Monet's floating studio, and Manet's painting of it, which raises a good opportunity to note the painting's affinity with impressionist works - in terms of palette and brushstroke.

The impressionist palette included many recently developed synthetic pigments. Manet is thus ingraining his pictures with signs of modernity in the paint itself, as well as the subject and style. The ephemeral brushstrokes observed in several places, particularly the man's face, merely suggest form rather than depict it. In other passages colour has been lavishly applied in dense, rich bands. This marks the painting with Manet's own inimitable style, distinct from his impressionist contemporaries, who tended to favour an egalitarian attention to each aspect of the scene. In Argenteuil the device is effective in draining the man of identity, leaving him present only as a force, a phenomenon of the environment, something to contend with. He is a stereotype, man in general, suggestive of his station and affiliation in the same way that the crude brushstrokes are suggestive of his features.

Again, this figure seems to be propositioning or demanding something of the female, with a similar gesture to his counterpart in Déjeuner. The woman to whom he directs his attention is clearly disinterested and does not return his glance. Her features have been clearly defined and she is thus our focal point as well as his - an effect that is also achieved through the bold juxtaposition of black and white in her hat. An inordinate degree of attention seems to have gone into this hat; its elaborate construction has been assiduously transcribed as if being preserved because Manet was pained by the fleetingness of fashions and wished to record his fascination with them, perhaps having in mind Baudelaire's insistence that artists do not neglect them.

In his essay, Baudelaire expounds his notion of life as harmonious, of everything combining 'to form a completely viable whole.' In this view every aspect of life has relevance, and an artist cannot, therefore, afford to pronounce any of them as unworthy as subjects and ignore them, since even 'the savagery that lurks in the midst of civilisation' is part of modernity and its heroic aspects. Manet's view of modernity was based on Baudelaire's, and on Baron Hausmann's destruction and rebuilding of Paris, which had the effect of raising the stones of the city to reveal the lives of the despondent populace beneath.

Accordingly, the two figures in Manet's painting have been drawn from these lowlier stations in life, or if the models were part of his circle and polite society then they have been treated in such a way as to emphasise whatever signs of coarseness their natures may possess. The prominence of the man's rugged forearm alludes to a lack of elegance and refinement - he is to be associated with labourers and people of restricted means. Yet the painting lacks snobbery, for Manet has allowed the reddish coarseness of their complexions, suggestive of rustic people, to give them an unbridled vitality, an air of unselfconscious, simple acceptance of themselves and their place in society.

Further parallels between Baudelaire's argument and Manet's Déjeuner, Argenteuil, and later A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, can be observed in their treatment of women. In the twelfth chapter, 'Women and Prostitutes', he writes 'Against a back- ground of hellish light … there arises the protean image of wanton beauty'. He proceeds to illustrate this protean image of women, at least as he sees it, in a variety of its manifestations. Manet seems to have been influenced by this notion when he created the two diametrically opposed images of women in these paintings. While Déjeuner showed a woman aware of, and candid about, her sexuality, Argenteuil shows a woman bemused by the strange attraction she seems to hold for the lasciviously-poised suitor at her side.

She is disinterested in his propositions and is oblivious to any benefit they may hold for her. This is perhaps indicated by the coolness of the startlingly vivid blue colour in which Manet has soaked the river Seine, and which swirls around her person, in contrast to the reds of the man's clothes. She seems altogether more maternal than either of the two females in Déjeuner. Her dress accentuates the fullness of her hips, while the flowers she holds in her lap imply an effloration of life, all of which formulates the maternal image she projects. But a connection still exists between her and the nude in Déjeuner; they both stare blankly out at the viewer with the same expression, showing the correspondances between different walks of life that Baudelaire spoke of.

The figures are placed extraordinarily close to the plane of the picture, while secondary objects are assembled haphazardly in the background like stage sets, giving a sense that the characters are on display, being exhibited. This connects with Baudelaire's practice of dividing society into types and subtypes, analysing human nature into individual consciousnesses for scrutiny and speculation.

Boating is similar in theme to Argenteuil: the same model seems to have been used for the man; the composition exhibits parallels with the earlier painting. Several devices have been used to imply depth: the viewer looks down into the boat; the diagonal of the sail leads the eye into the background to imply recession. At the same time, the two-dimensionality is emphasised in the minimal shading, particularly evident on the man's clothes, and the wall of continuous colour behind the figures, which obliviates any sign of conventional background that could verify our supposition about the recession.

This painting begins with a flurry of movement, emphasised by the lack of solid background, which would slow the effect by anchoring the painting amid a still scene. Like Argenteuil it is a 'sketch of manners', depicting members of society engaged in their favourite pursuit. In his essay, Baudelaire states that for this 'the technical means which is the most expeditious … will obviously be the best'. An awareness of this notion is evident in this, and other, Manet paintings. It is characterised by fast and efficient brushstrokes - suggesting form and modelling through the rapid, often minimal, application of paint.

Manet's expeditious style is a direct reaction to the fleeting nature of modern life; his technique is necessary for his subject: 'in trivial life, in the daily metamorphosis of external things, there is a rapidity of movement which calls for an equal speed of execution from the artist.' At the same time that Manet allocates a large degree of his composition to the expression of the dynamism of modern life he does not neglect that other, eternal element, which Baudelaire spoke of: the static pose of the man (who this time is emphasised with his centrality, and the fact that the woman's face is painted in profile) is dignified and statuesque. It suggests the underlying presence of that immutable element. Manet, then, is 'the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.'

For his last major work Manet turned to a resplendent and gloriously illuminated shrine to the modern life he had led and depicted. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a return to Baudelaire's idea of 'the Heroism of Modern Life'. Its dominant feature is the svelte and melancholy girl who gazes blankly out in a similar way to both Déjeuner and Argenteuil, but here the expression is much more personal and familiar; we have a real sense of the identity of the subject. This generates a profound and moving sympathy for her - she looks intensely weary and isolated amid the throng of lights and laughter, faces and music that is present only as an imitation, a mirror image - reflecting its falsity and exposing its brash spuriousness, its eventual irrelevance when separated from the eternal, immutable contingent of beauty present in the girl's admirable and attentive vigil.

The distorted reflection features the face of a man engaged in a discussion with the girl, but one which she does not find particularly engaging. The fascination here belongs solely to the man. He seems to be a representation of both the artist and the viewer at once, a surrogate for each, who are both intrigued by the beauty and quiet heroism of the girl. She is the fair passerby from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal - 'Slim, tall, majestic in her heavy mourning / Noble and free in movement, statuesque of limb.' This painting then, is not disillusioned with modern life - it simply shows that the harmony Baudelaire spoke of cannot exist without the cohesive relationship between the two elements.

The objects on the bar are as observant and evocative as Manet's many still life paintings, and show the broad scope of his prodigious talent. He devoted attention to a wide range of subjects. The enormous variety of his art and his undogmatic approach to it makes the term artist seem less fitting for him than the title Baudelaire gives to Constantin Guys: 'Man of the world' , 'a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and lawful reasons for all its uses'. This concept helps us understand Manet's approach to painting: he does not turn to modern life merely in search of subjects; instead he resorts to painting in a frantic attempt to preserve the quintessential aspects of modernity before they pass into memory, to keep a record of the harmonious relationship between life and art, eternal and ephemeral, vital and insignificant.

In their expeditious technique, in their fascination with 'bourgeois life and the pageant of fashion', and finally in their devotion to the transition into modernity, each of these paintings is, as Baudelaire said, 'a sketch of manners'. To give the fashions, the vogue pastimes, the various intimations of modernity precedence, Manet subordinates every aspect of his compositions to them, conveying them with an eloquence and a passion that transcend any lack of clarity or order his compositions may contain. The backgrounds to these paintings all have a distinctly artificial tone: the mirror in Folies-Bergère; the ill-proportioned stage-set of Déjeuner. In Argenteuil the boats and the far bank have been assembled in a jarring, constructed manner. Boating sees the omission of the horizon, an unnatural suppression of the scene. These effects give the paintings a charade-like quality, a pictorial illusionism which Baudelaire saw as characteristic of modern Parisian life.

Manet seeks to understand every aspect of the modernity surrounding him - both elegant and savage - by carefully observing them and conducting these experiments in paint. And yet, he is not a mere illustrator: 'few men are gifted with the capacity of seeing; there are fewer still who possess the power of expression', and therefore the final conclusion is that Manet was indeed 'The Painter of Modern Life'.


Baudelaire, Charles The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (First published by Phaidon Press, 1964, London. Second edition,1995)

Baudelaire, Charles Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal (First published by FWL Publications, 1994, Hexam, Northumberland. Translation by F.W. Leakey)

Courthion, Pierre Manet (Published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1988. Pierre Courthion's Manet originally published in 1959)

Frascina, Francis Manet and Modernism (First published by The Open University Press, 1983, Milton Keynes)

Harris, Nathaniel The Art of Manet (First published by Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1982. This edition published by Optimum Books, 1982, London)

Rey, Robert Manet (Published by Bolfini Press, Naefels, Switzerland, 1983. Translation by Edward Lucie Smith)

Richardson, John Manet (Published by Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1982. John Richardson's essay originally published in 1959)


1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (Phaidon Press, 1995, London. All references within the text are to this edition) p3

2. Ibid. p12

3. Ibid. p3

4. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse III. Quoted from the handout to Paul Usherwood's lecture, 'Academicism vs Romanticism'.

5. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p12

6. Ibid. p13

7. Francis Frascina, Manet and Modernism (The Open University Press, 1983, Milton Keynes. All references within the text are to this edition) p27

8. Summary of ideas from Paul Usherwood's lecture, 'The Painter of Modern Life'

9. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p4

10. Ibid. p12

11. Ibid. p36

12. Ibid. p36

13. Ibid. p4

14. Ibid. p4

15. Ibid. p5

16. Charles Baudelaire in his review of the 1845 Salon, qouted in Francis Frascina's Manet and Modernism p20

17. Charles Baudelaire, 'To a Fair Passer-By', quoted from Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal (FWL Publications, 1994, Hexam, Northumberland.)

18. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p7

19. Summary of ideas from Paul Usherwood's lecture, 'The Painter of Modern Life'

20. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p11


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