It’s a cliché to say it, but how many people, when they actually live in a major city, don’t get around to enjoying the cultural opportunities very often?
I love art – but miss exhibition after exhibition simply because I’m dreadful at making the small adjustments to my usual routine to visit a gallery.
So, given that last Friday’s visit to the theatre was on a bank holiday, it offered the perfect opportunity to grab a chance to visit the Royal Academy of Arts to catch Manet: Portraying life before it closes this month.
It’s the first time that the artist’s portraiture has been the subject of an exhibition, even though it formed about half of the output of the man who has been described both as ‘the man who invented modern art’ and even ‘the man who invented modernity’.
|Berthe Morisot with Muff|
The Academy has brought together more than 50 works, featuring sitters from his wife through to celebrities of the day such as Émile Zola.
But alongside the portraits of the famous, much of Manet’s work features the Paris of his day, and much if it shows people at leisure.
I’ve always loved the Impressionists and seeing an exhibition of any single artist is an excellent way to learn about the development of their work.
In the case of Édouard Manet (1832-1883), one of the best ways of tracing that in this exhibition comes from three portraits of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), who sat for him around a dozen times.
|Berthe Morisot with Bunch of Violets|
Married to Manet’s brother Eugène, Morisot was also a painter. It would have been one thing for a respectable, middle-class woman to have learned to draw, but a career in any realm, let alone painting, was hardly to be encouraged.
Yet Morisot and one of her sisters both had paintings accepted for exhibition by the Salon in 1864 – and Berthe continued to be exhibited there in years that followed.
In 1874, she became involved with the Société Anonyme Coopérative as it made plans for an exhibition that would be independent of the government’s official ones at the Salon. Morisot was to participate in all but one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, missing the fourth in 1879 due to the birth of a daughter.
In 1892, she held her only one-woman show.
|Berthe Morisot in a Mourning Hat|
The portraits of Morisot on display at the Academy date from 1869, 1872 and 1874 and reveal wildly different approaches.
In the first, Berthe Morisot with a Muff, the brush work is loose and the palette muted to the point of being like a sepia photograph. Yet this approach beautifully captures the fur of her coat and muff.
And it has a fascinating, candid quality that is in marked contrast to the second of the trio exhibited here, Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets.
Here, on the contrary, the look is direct, the eyes of a very beautiful woman meeting the viewer.
Manet himself, however conservative in some ways, was radical in others, and his work shocked some viewers. It’s not difficult to imagine that such a direct look was one of the things they found shocking.
This picture is also different in palette, for here is the love of an extraordinarily rich, deep black, contrasted with pale flesh and background. That black crops up time and again in Manet’s work.
But in terms of this trio of paintings, the final one, painted just two years later, shows a very different woman, although the gaze remains as defiantly challenging.
This is Berthe Morisot in a Mourning Hat, painted after her husband, Manet’s brother, died.
The sharply delineated contrast between darks and lights is here, but this is a woman who looks haggard with grief – a mirror, perhaps, to the artist’s own grief.
Moving away from Morisot, the exhibition has plenty more to offer.
I particularly appreciated the portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé from 1876.
There are two pictures here that are of women on horseback or in riding dress, both titled Amazon.
The composition of the first, larger canvas is perhaps more interesting and evokes a portrait taken by Irving Penn of Marlene Dietrich many years later in having the subject gaze back over her left should, her body almost a solid, black triangle.
But this Amazon, from 1882, is also delightful. Again, the deep black, this time contrasted not just with the pale skin but also the bright blue background that seems so strikingly different to the greens that feature strongly in Manet's work.
And again, the direct gaze.
One of my favouites, though, is The Luncheon, from 1868. Similar things here in terms of colours – the black again, with very pale contrasts. But the young man in the foreground is avoiding the artist’s look.
It is the maid in the background who comes closest to holding the gaze. There’s more background detail here too – indeed, the foreground has the odd combination of an old helmet and sword, plus a black cat washing itself.
Those, combined with the food, drink and utensils on the table, are reminiscent of Dutch still life painting – even the vanitas that had a moral meaning in a warning of taking too much pleasure in earthly things.
The model for the central figure was Léon, the son of Manet’s Dutch wife Suzanne. Nobody knows who his father was – speculation includes Manet himself or his own father.
|All alone with Music in the Tuileries|
Further speculation has it that the background figures here are Suzanne and Manet themselves, that this is a family group. But none of that explains the helmet and sword.
The cat, on the other hand, may be an homage to Baudelaire, who had died the previous year. A cat was a known symbol for the poet.
So it remains a mystery, but a wonderful painting nonetheless.
And a mention for Music in the Tuileries from 1862. On the way through, crowds were around it.
Suddenly, it seemed entirely different. Had there been time, you could have sat down and simply got lost in the scene.
Finally, to return to Morisot. Although none of her work is on show in this exhibition, it seems appropriate to include one of her own pictures. This is a self portrait from 1884.
• Manet: Portraying life is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 14 April.