Edouard Manet’s a portraitist who puts as much care into a lemon A blockbuster exhibition of Manet's portraits is to be mounted at the
Royal Academy in January Manet is coming. Hooray! A blockbuster exhibition of his portraits is to be mounted at the Royal Academy in January, and it will make an exciting change from the Impressionists, of whom we have been seeing quite a bit recently. Last month the Telegraph welcomed the acquisition by the Ashmolean in Oxford, with the help of many donations, of a study for The Balcony (1868). And now the finished group portrait with its mysteriously isolated sitters is coming to London. Mystery was a characteristic of Manet’s pictures seen by his contemporaries, whom he puzzled. We may have the same feeling about his best-known painting in Britain, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, finished in 1882, a year before his death, aged 51. Among its familiar details is the bottle of Bass pale ale with its red-triangled label, for with Manet there is no disjunction between portraiture and still life. This masterly presentation of things as well as people is apparent in another picture, Luncheon in the Studio (not the one on the grass), being lent by Munich for the exhibition. As a portrait it shows Manet’s stepson (perhaps his so n, or even his brother) Léon. But the tablecloth is painted as carefully, and the peeled lemon lying on it, too. This strand of virtuosity keys in with an early influence on Manet, that of Velázquez. Manet shared an astonishment at the way Velázquez depicts life with two later painters who sidestepped the Impressionist ascendancy – John Singer Sargent and his Spanish contemporary Joaquin Sorolla. For, though Manet has been called the father of Impressionism, his was an artistic genius that skipped a generation, leaving no children, only grandchildren. It is just over 100 years ago that Roger Fry put on an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London called “Manet and the Post-Impressionists”. He had at first called them “Expressionists”. (The late Bruce B ernard applied to Manet’s art Mallarmé’s words about his own poetry: “To paint not the thing but the effect it produces.”) But Fry’s name Expressionists for this group of painters didn’t catch on, and he settled for Post -Impressionists on the reasonable grounds that they came after them. “They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form,” Fry wrote in 1909, “not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.” Fry had a theory of form, line, mass and colour that seems very applicable to Manet. If (to put it crudely) your idea of an Impressionist painting is one that – with your eyes screwed up at a suitable distance from the canvas – looks like nature, Manet speaks a different language. A writer who is not usually read as an art critic, but who had at least studied at the Slade and lived in the time of the Impressionists, G K Chesterton, rather surprisingly became convinced that Impressionism “is another name for the final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe”. While the bourgeois of Paris were shocked by Manet painting prostitutes, Chesterton was shocked by the Impressionists painting nothing at all, or at least something with no substantial reality. It betrayed, he thought, existence itself. I don’t press this view, but it may point to a connection that is worth exploring. I’ve just spent half a day pottering round the Romanesque galleries at Barcelona’s National Museum of Catalan Art. I never seem to get as far as the Gothic wing, let alone the Renaissance. But there is something in the use of line, of colour, of black pigment, of isolated figures, that links the art of Manet with that of 12th or 13th-century Europe. If you don’t see what I mean, go to the Academy when the show is on and look again.