Painting Techniques and Style of Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet's The Railway.

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Edouard Manet (Jan. 23, 1832-April 30, 1883) was a French artist who, along with Claude Monet, helped found the Impressionist movement and had a significant influence on many of the young painters who came after him. He bridged the transition from Realism to Impressionism in his painting, borrowing some of the compositional elements from the former but paving the way to a more modern approach to painting and to the subject matter. He was known for disregarding academic conventions, challenging social mores, and for painting contemporary urban scenes of common people.

His paintings shocked people, and after receiving early recognition at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris, he was rejected for several years. His painting "Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" (1862) was in the Salon Des Refuses in 1863, an exhibition held by command of Napoleon III for those artists whose work was rejected by the Salon. To the people of that era, Manet's approach to painting was unsettling if not revolutionary.

Manet's Painting Techniques and Style

  • Manet painted en plein air, along with other Impressionists, and did sketches on site and returned to the studio to complete his paintings.
  • Manet painted alla prima, meaning painting "all at once," with wet layers of oil paint applied on top of existing wet layers rather than the traditional way of painting by building up layers of glaze on dried layers of paint.
  • His brushstrokes were loose, broad, and quick. They were visible to the eye rather than so finely blended as to be invisible.
  • His portraits were unconventional. His subjects were not necessarily looking directly at the viewer, or if they were, they were looking in a challenging way. In "The Railway," shown above, the little girl has her back to the viewer, while her caregiver is looking up, interrupted from her reading, as if to ask, "What do you want?"
  • His portraits were not idealized like those of the Classical Renaissance painters. As a realist painter, they portrayed real people with real expressions and irregularities. Manet said, "There's no symmetry in nature. One eye is never exactly the same as the other. There's always a difference. We all have a more or less crooked nose and an irregular mouth."
  • Manet painted nudes as real women, as in the painting, "Olympia," in which he portrayed the subject as an upper-class prostitute. This was shocking because people at that time were used to seeing idealized female nudes modeled on historical, mythical, or biblical themes.
  • Unlike Realist painters such as Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who focused on paintings of rural scenes, Manet painted Parisian city life and contemporary urban themes.
  • Manet's approach to painting is very direct. He did not draw his subject carefully before painting but rather blocked in the figures and forms on an underpainting of creamy off-white or pale gray with local color after a loose sketch with a fluid paint of dark umber.
  • Manet was more interested in conveying the paint on a two-dimensional surface than in conveying realistic three-dimensional space. If you look closely at his paintings or enlarge them on your computer monitor, you can see that he does not care whether a brushstroke from a background element happens over a brushstroke from a foreground element. His paintings depict shallow pictorial space because of the ambiguity of brushstroke.
  • He used subtle areas of color rather than gradations of value to suggest form and modeling. The range of middle values is diminished in favor of greater contrast of light and dark. This serves to flatten the picture plane somewhat and shows an influence of the Japanese prints of the time.
  • Manet liked to use black and used it masterfully. Whereas Impressionists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) used blue or purple to paint shadows, Manet freely used black, influenced by Spanish painters Velazquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).
  • Manet used heavier applications of oil paint on his main subject and thinner layers in the background and in less significant areas. This helped to direct the viewer's eye to the more important parts of the painting.
  • Manet wanted his paintings to have a sense of immediacy about them, so rather than laboriously overworking parts with which he was struggling, he would wipe them off almost completely, keeping only the bottommost layer, and repaint them so that they would appear fresh. He said, "When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."
  • Like Monet and the other Impressionists, Manet began to add white to his colors to brighten them as well as using bold colors directly from the paint tube, a new invention of the era in 1841. He laid these colors down, one next to the other — easily distinguishable patches of color — to mix optically in the viewer's eye rather than on the canvas.
  • Although they appear to be flat color, if you look closely you can see that the colors in the backgrounds of his paintings are often a complex mix of colors.

Photography Influence

Manet's paintings show the influence of photography, a new medium of the era, both in tonal range and composition. There is less range in the mid tones and greater contrast in the lights and darks, as in a Notan painting. Also, figures are cropped as though by the frame of the camera viewfinder, rather than being well within the edges of the composition.

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