CHICAGO — Édouard Manet was succumbing to the ordeal of late-stage syphilis when he painted some of the freshest, most affecting flower paintings in the history of art. Against dark backgrounds, brushstrokes by turns delicate, dimpled and confidently supple coalesce to describe modest bouquets of moss roses, lilacs and plump peonies. Occasionally, a cut stem, cropped by the frame, lies fallen beside the glass vase, reinforcing what the wet-in-wet paint is already telling you: These flowers have just arrived. They’re a gift. Enjoy them. Nothing lasts.
This was between 1880 and 1882. By early spring the following year, Manet’s leg had become so gangrenous that it had to be amputated. Ten days later, he was dead.
During the same late period, Manet also painted little congregations of mandarins, apples and plums, as well as a fat bundle of green-tinged, purple-tipped asparagus. The collector and art historian Charles Ephrussi, who met Manet in 1880, was so delighted by the latter that he paid 1,000 francs for it — 200 francs over the asking price. Like a conscientious grocer, Manet responded (the story is famous) by turning out a second, smaller painting of a single asparagus spear, which he sent to Ephrussi with a note: “There was one missing from your bunch.”
The late still lifes have been hung together in the show’s humble yet heart-rending penultimate room. As you walk from one to the next, each painting feels like a delicate move in an ongoing ritual of intimate exchange, each a bittersweet amalgam of affection, optimism, confession and apology. Manet’s fondness for plums, in particular, made me think of “This Is Just to Say,” the poem by William Carlos Williams in which the author begs forgiveness for eating “the plums/ that were in/ the icebox/ and which/ you were probably/ saving for breakfast” but which (hey, sorry!) were “delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold.”
“Manet and Modern Beauty,” which will travel to the Getty in Los Angeles, is infused with a similar spirit. Beauty in the modern era, it proposes, has a plain-spoken yet necessarily fleeting quality, and it’s underwritten by corruption and decay. Or, to put it more bluntly: You can surround yourself with flowers, fruit and young women in fashionable dresses, and why wouldn’t you? But (hey, sorry!) you will also have tertiary syphilis, you will endure severe and chronic pain, your leg will be amputated and then you will die.
This, I think, makes “Manet and Modern Beauty” an exhibition for our time.
Some of Manet’s best-known paintings, including “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” and “Chez le Père Lathuille,” date from these final years, so it’s odd that this should be the first show devoted to late Manet. The problem has always been that those works are considered exceptions. The general, lazily held consensus has been that Manet, who died at 51, fell off in both ambition and quality in his final decade.
Manet is rightly regarded as the father of modern art. He spent the 1860s, the final decade of France’s glamorous and corrupt Second Empire, inventing a way of painting that was sly, sensuous, nonchalant, political, ardent and fresh — always fresh. Born into a wealthy and respected family, he was charming, secretive and cool. At a time of peak, paranoid conservatism, he was almost casually radical.
Alas, France wasn’t ready for him. Encouraged by an early success, he submitted a series of bizarre, still eye-popping masterpieces (“Olympia,” “Luncheon on the Grass,” “The Dead Christ With Angels”) to the Salon, the huge exhibition that annually made or broke artists’ reputations. The conservative juries were appalled by his works’ lack of conventional finish, abrupt tonal transitions and almost insulting playfulness, and they rejected him. Repeatedly.
When Manet’s work did go on public display, he was pilloried and censored. He didn’t lack support from fellow artists and writers, who looked to him as a leader. But the battering went on for a decade and took a huge psychic toll.
After living through the trauma of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1870 and ’71, Manet changed. He lightened his palette, painted dainty portraits of pretty women, took up pastels and shifted hesitantly toward Impressionism. It was his example, of course, that had ignited the Impressionist flame. Manet now flirted with them without ever embracing their principles or joining their breakaway group. By 1876, when this show begins, it was clear that French art was beginning to bend in his direction, yet his pictures were still being rejected by the Salon.
The late period’s representative picture is “Jeanne,” also known as “Spring.” Purchased by the Getty in 2014, this half-length portrait depicts a young woman with an upturned nose, long eyelashes and cute, upholstered lips. Painted in profile against a leafy background, the model, an actress known as Jane Demarsy, wears a floral pompadour dress, a cabriolet hat topped with roses and daisies and trimmed with a ruche, a dashing black scarf and long suede gloves. She carries what one observer described as a “cafe-au-lait parasol.” Really, she could not be more gorgeous.
“Jeanne” was painted in 1881 and exhibited at the 1882 Salon alongside “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” Ironies abound: “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” is now considered Manet’s late masterpiece, while “Jeanne” was all but forgotten. At the time, however, it was the other way around: “Jeanne” was Manet’s “Mona Lisa,” wrote one critic. Another summed it up thus: “ ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.’ All his faults. ‘Jeanne’: all his qualities.”
This exhibition (organized by Gloria Groom, Scott Allan and Emily Beeny) proposes to restore “Jeanne” to the status she once enjoyed and to encourage appreciation of a side of Manet that has long been suppressed.
Modern critics have tended to view the output of Manet’s final years as they later viewed Matisse’s Nice period (1917-1930): as evidence of a failure of nerve; a shameful retreat from heroic avant-garde ambitions; and a regrettable slide back into ease, comfort and “feminine” complacency.
In both cases, the disapproval has always betrayed fears of effeminacy. So it’s interesting that the recent reappraisal of Manet’s late work has been advanced largely by feminist scholars. They invite us to look again at Manet’s late infatuation with fashion and with society’s coded idea of femininity and to see the results less prejudicially.
In doing so, they acknowledge (but tend to understate, I think) the influence of Manet’s close female friends, the artists Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès. Morisot, in particular, was perfecting a visual language as intimate and evanescent as perfume in the 1870s. Her flickering, “unfinished” technique and fondness for domestic settings and gardens had a great impact on Manet.
Morisot was distantly descended from the great 18th-century painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose brushy, dashing way with paint anticipates Manet’s late work. So it’s apt that Beeny and other scholars have stressed correspondences between late Manet and French art of the 18th century — not only Fragonard, but also Chardin (a master of still lifes) and Watteau (the greatest of dress painters).
Those 18th-century artists were enjoying a revival during Manet’s last years. Often commissioned and admired by powerful women, their work is associated with a feminine sensibility that prevailed in aristocratic circles before French art turned strenuously masculine around the time of the revolution. Manet and Morisot had just lived through the siege of Paris and the bloodshed that ended the Commune, so it’s not surprising that they felt a renewed nostalgia for the art of this earlier period.
Does recognizing all this help us see the greatness in late Manet?
I think it does. But then, when you love an artist, as I love Manet, you love almost everything by them. Questions of “greatness” tend to confuse the issue, which — like intimacy — is most interesting when it gets most personal.
Apart from the flower paintings, the works in the show I love most are “Boating,” “In the Conservatory” and “Plum Brandy.” Of those three paintings, only “Plum Brandy” has even a hint of psychology; Manet wasn’t interested in helping you get to know his subjects.
I want to call “Boating” a summertime symphony in blue and white. But it’s more like a pop song. Either way, it restores nobility to the term “leisure class.” “In the Conservatory,” a prize loan from Berlin, shows a fashionable couple conversing against a lush backdrop of potted palms and flowers. Full of painterly brio, it’s a study in stripes (the bench) and fanning forms (the pleats in her dress, the palm fronds).
“Plum Brandy” shows a blond-lashed woman in a pink dress at a cafe table. You can love it for the woman’s slumped pose or the exquisite lassitude in her left hand, which holds her cigarette the way sleeping legs scissor a pillow.
But isn’t it really all about the color? If the painting is “great,” its greatness is all to do with the way the pale pink of the woman’s dress is teased into something richer, more subtle by the deep red of the banquette, the gold and green background, the black and white of her hat, the strawberry blond of her hair and, above all, the khaki green plum that floats in her glass.
Ah, that plum. It’s almost closing time. Won’t someone save it for breakfast?
Manet and Modern Beauty Through Sep. 8 at the Art Institute of Chicago. artic.edu.