by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Édouard Manet's 1863 masterpiece ''Olympia.''

How Italy Cast a Spell Over Manet

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 June 2013


Venus is forbidden to leave Italy and, until now, her descendant, Olympia, could not leave France. So the juxtaposition of Titian and Manet masterpieces from the Uffizi and the Musée d'Orsay - the most notorious nudes of their epochs - is an event.

The far-ranging exhibition, 'Manet: The Return to Venice,' containing 80 pieces and curated by Stéphane Guégan and stylishly designed by Daniela Ferretti, is also an occasion to take a fresh look at how consistently Italian old master works inspired Manet, indeed how he forged a new art, substantially by returning to and reinterpreting the art of the Renaissance - his 'Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe' and 'Olympia' being supreme examples of this process.

Édouard Manet was often derided in his lifetime, but he was hailed in the 20th century as the father of Modernism. The year after his death in 1883, a hostile critic, aware of the importance of Manet's sources but blind to the manner in which he reconfigured them, sought to dismiss him by remarking that 'half Manet's canvases are slavish copies of the masters.' But, as Zola had written prophetically in 1866: 'Our fathers mocked Courbet, and now we go into ecstasies before him. We mock Manet and it will be our children who go into ecstasies before his canvases.'

In 1850, at the age of 18, Manet began a rigorous, six-year-long traditional training in the Paris studio of Thomas Couture, a dedicated admirer of Venetian painting. In the same year, he registered as a copyist at the Louvre, a collection rich in Italian art. In 1853 he made his first trip to Venice and Florence. He returned to Venice again with his wife and the artist James Tissot, in 1874.

The first room of the exhibition presents key pieces from the archive of sketches and paintings from Italian art that Manet built up in Paris and during his visits to the peninsula. These include sketches of works by Ghirlandaio, Parmigianino, Luca della Robbia, Fra Bartolomeo, Andrea del Sarto and Veronese. There is a detailed oil rendering of Titian's 'Pardo Venus' and a painstaking copy of Tintoretto's late self-portrait.

The copy in ink of the 'Concert Champêtre' (then attributed to Giorgione, but now believed to be partly or wholly by Titian) by Henri Fantin-Latour that Manet had in his studio, and Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after Raphael of 'The Judgement of Paris,' are here, too. Manet drew directly on both these works for his 'Déjeuner sur l'Herbe,' which provoked a critical storm when exhibited in 1863 at the Salon des Réfusés. Often described as the first modern painting, it is represented here by the oil sketch version from the Courtauld in London.

Drawing freely on both Annibale Carracci and Rubens, 'La Pêche,' a lively hybrid oil of 1860-62, from the Metropolitan in New York, contains intriguing biographical references. The artist himself and Suzanne Leenhoff, the Manet family's piano teacher, who became Manet's lover in 1850 and whom he married discreetly in Holland in 1863, are depicted in 17th-century Dutch costume, while on the far bank of a river, fishing rod in hand, is Suzanne's son Léon, probably fathered by the artist.

The second room reveals the show's coup de théâtre, the placing side by side of Titian's 'Venus of Urbino' and Manet's 'Olympia.' The Venus was executed for Guidobaldo della Rovere II, Duke of Urbino, in 1538, but taken to the Uffizi in Florence in 1631. The painting, originally referred to simply as 'a nude' was not the first such Renaissance painting of female beauty devoid of mythological or biblical justifications - at least one such by Titian's master Giovanni Bellini has come down to us - but the erotic frankness of this image was bold even for its time, and for long afterward viewing was restricted to important visitors.

When Manet obtained permission to copy it in 1857, he was granted a privilege still not extended to all artists. Placing the two canvases together demonstrates how minutely Manet had studied Titian's image and the extent to which his 'Olympia' was an almost reverential tribute to the Venetian master. This can be seen, for example, in Manet's rendering of the pillows and folds of the sheets and the enormous care he took to reproduce the rich colors of Titian's ruby red mattress and dark green hangings.

Titian's picture is suffused with a warm glow and air of self-contained, domestic tranquillity confirmed by the two women seen in the background, busy at an open marriage chest. But the cold light Manet casts on the cool, creamy skin of his nude and her unwavering and unblushing outward gaze, transform the scene.

Victorine Meurent, a professional model, who had already appeared as the principal nude in 'Déjeuner sur l'Herbe,' again posed for this picture. Few seemed to doubt that 'Olympia' represented a contemporary demimondaine, despite the more elegant mise-en-scène. The realistic depiction of Victorine's body in this setting also stood in stark, almost pornographic, contrast to idealized Renaissance, Baroque and neo-Classical reclining nudes, strongly influenced by classical statuary, further upsetting conventional expectations.

Amid the furor that 'Olympia' stirred up, it is extraordinary that Olympia as a modern reincarnation of Titian's Venus passed unnoticed. The connection does not seem to have been made until 1897, when the critic Léonce Bénédite commented on it.

The manner in which Manet repeatedly combined elements of Italian Renaissance compositions with his own brand of realism is further explored in the exhibition. His 'Jesus Mocked by Soldiers' (shown along with 'Olympia' at the Salon) drew on Titian's 'Christ Crowned with Thorns' at the Louvre, on Andrea del Sarto's frescoes at the Annunziata church in Florence and on a 'Dead Christ' by Antonello da Messina in Venice. And even Manet's still lifes, seven of which are displayed here and to which some of his harshest critics grudgingly assigned some merit, were partly inspired by still-life elements in paintings by Titian and Tintoretto.

'Manet/Velázquez,' at the Metropolitan a decade ago, centered on Manet's pictures on Spanish themes. But, as a series of juxtapositions illustrate here, Italian models still played a large part, even in these compositions. At least two contain elements borrowed from Benozzo Gozzoli, and Manet's 'The Balcony' appears to owe as much to Carpaccio's 'Two Venetian Women' as it does to Goya's 'Mayas on a Balcony,' not least in the strange distracted air of the female protagonists.

No less thought-provoking are the placing together of Manet's 'Masked Ball at the Opera' (1873-74) and Francesco Guardi's 'The Ridotto at Palazzo Dandolo at San Moisè,' and of the artist's 'Portrait of Émile Zola' (1868) and Lorenzo Lotto's 'Portrait of Young Man in his Studio' (around 1530). In the later pair, not only the composition but also their palettes of blacks, whites and a distinctive powder blue are startlingly similar.

The Manet family began to take seaside vacations at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1864. In the hope of embarking on a maritime career, at 16 he had sailed on a training ship to Rio de Janeiro, but was rejected by the Naval College. Yet his interest in the sea was now revived as an artistic subject. One of the results of these excursions on display here is 'Sur la plage' of 1873, in which the arrangement of the figures is clearly based on a scene from Andrea del Sarto's frescoes in Florence, which he sketched in 1857.

During his first stay in Venice, Manet, absorbed in studying the wealth of old master paintings in the city's galleries and churches, did not paint Venice itself. But on his return in 1874, he made two oils of the Grand Canal. One of these, from a private collection, returns on loan to Venice along with several other atmospheric marine pictures, which conclude this enlightening exhibition.

Manet: The Return to Venice. Doge's Palace, Venice. Through Aug. 18.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023