Deft Draftsmanship and Astonishing Canvases

Jerry Weiss Reviews Manet/Degas at the Met.

October 5, 2023
Jerry Weiss

I made it to Manet/Degas at the Met four days after the show opened to the general public. Previously, the exhibition enjoyed a lengthy run at the Musée d’Orsay, and many of the works in New York are on loan from Paris. Given the proliferation of images shared to social media in the last week alone, one could be forgiven for feeling very much like a latecomer. As familiar as I am with the work of both artists, I didn’t anticipate surprises. Influenced by the Spanish school, particularly Velázquez, Édouard Manet was more nearly a pure painter. Edgar Degas was a diligent student of the Italian Renaissance and Dutch art who was arguably the best draftsman of his generation. The two provided many of the planks from which I constructed a platform for figurative painting as a student. So except for some small and less familiar works, one had at least a nodding acquaintance with much of what’s here. The rewards of the exhibition accrue not from revelation but from the juxtaposition of work by two friends and rivals, each cerebral, urbane, and dedicated to—obsessed with—painting life in Paris. They met in their late twenties, when Manet encountered Degas etching a copy in the Louvre.

Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866, oil on canvas, 72 7/8 x 50 5/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889.

At the Met, the artists are introduced, or introduce themselves, with a pair of self-portraits. In format they match nicely, yet that’s as far as the comparison ought to go. Manet’s, painted late in life, shows the artist smartly dressed and halted in the act of painting, his brush-holding hand a blur of activity, the physical symbol of a quicksilver intelligence. He had absorbed Hals’s lessons in painterly economy and been the standard bearer for the most radical art movement of the nineteenth century. Degas’s canvas is a youthful study, awkwardly posed in formal wear, more dour than debonair. He is still a student, his best work well in the future.

The first galleries put the rivals on more even footing, with samples of their youthful studies. There are copies, some counterintuitive: a copy after Delacroix by Degas, a study after Filippino Lippi by Manet. Sometimes the copies were fully realized, as in Manet’s radiant study after Titian’s The Madonna of the Rabbit or Degas’s marvelous copy of a Rembrandt portrait etching. Other times, they are brief notations or color studies. Both artists committed copies of the Infanta Margarita by Velázquez. They were enthusiastic students of the masters. When I begin to enumerate the benefits of master copies, most students respond as if I was prescribing colonoscopies. Degas and Manet devoured museums, and the lessons they took would inform their work thereafter. The arrangement of multiple figures in Degas’s late works reminds one of classical friezes. It took years for Manet to get Velázquez out of his bloodstream, and when he did Degas bemoaned his conversion to an impressionist palette and the loss of his “magnificent prune juice.”

Their transitions to a personal art led both Manet and Degas, as much as any artist before them (with the possible exception of Daumier) to chronicle Parisian culture. There were some bumps along the way, although Manet, less beholden to his predecessors, seems to have accomplished the trick more naturally, moving from the slightly tentative set pieces The Spanish Singer and Boy with a Sword to the confident execution of a contemporary woman in Young Lady in 1866 (in between was the gorgeously painted human still life, The Dead Toreador). His palette hadn’t changed much, and a pleasure in the sensual application of paint was an asset from the start. For Degas, the endeavor to find his way was more complicated. He tried to follow the traditional formula of history painting, with mixed results. Scene of War in the Middle Ages is a curiosity that afforded an excuse to paint the nude, and Semiramis Building Babylon is an unusually static exercise—Manet, two years the elder, sniped “When I was painting modern Paris, he was still portraying Semiramis” (Degas clapped back, “That Manet. As soon as I did dancers, he did them. He always imitated.”). A few years later, Degas began another odd, large canvas, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, which he messed around with for decades. In response to Manet, he’d found his subject—modern life—and his intellectual restraint had been transformed by personal experience and an increasingly idiosyncratic compositional sense.

Manet/Degas Metropolitan Museum
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 51 2/5 × 74 9/10 in. Offered to the French State by public subscription initiated by Claude Monet, 1890. Musée d’Orsay. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In different ways and with markedly different public receptions, their experiments culminated in astonishing canvases that are currently installed in adjacent galleries, Olympia by Manet and Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family) by Degas. Olympia took a nude representation of Venus by Titian as its point of departure, but the girl in Manet’s painting is no goddess. The model was Victorine Meurent, an artist and Manet’s primary muse in the 1860s, also represented here in Young Lady in 1866 and Study for “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”. Without mythological sugar coating or acceptably feathered modeling of flesh, Victorine plays the role of a prostitute, pale and powdered. Our viewpoint is at her eye level, which suggests that we’re seated rather than standing above her. She appraises us as an equal. A black maid brings flowers from an admirer, a black cat stands at the foot of the bed. The vertical edge of a screen bisects the canvas before ending like an arrow at Victorine’s pelvis. Even now, a century and a half later, there’s enough loaded content to fill volumes of critical interpretation. Stir in the thickly painted, flat patterns with which Manet filled the space, and it’s little wonder the painting severely tested the public’s nerve at the 1865 Salon. People hated it. Antonin Proust, who later posed for a portrait by Manet, wrote, “If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration.” After the artist’s death, sentiment had shifted enough so that Claude Monet could crowdsource its purchase and bequeath it to the French state. Olympia was a cultural bellwether. Manet, a bourgeois at heart, became the leader of the avant-garde.

So meager is the early documentation for The Bellelli Family, it’s assumed via circumstantial evidence that Degas exhibited it at the Salon of 1867. If so, the painting was poorly displayed and all but ignored. There’s also uncertainty as to where and when the canvas was painted. We know that Degas visited his aunt Laura, her husband and two young daughters at their home in Florence in 1858, where he produced a wealth of drawings, pastels, and small oils. Most likely he took these studies back to Paris, then rented a studio expressly to paint the finished family portrait. The Bellelli Family is more than the sum of its preparatory studies. It’s a powerful composition, anchored by the pyramid of Degas’s aunt and cousins, Laura’s stern face set against a drawing of Degas’s grandfather hung on the wall behind her. Her husband is estranged from the main group—the composition, it turns out, is a narrative of the marital tensions Degas witnessed while living in Florence. There’s no direct precedent for The Bellelli Family. Degas had catalyzed his ambition to paint a large scale historical narrative into a monumental account of his family’s intimate dynamics. Attempting to decode what makes the painting nonpareil, I’m left with this: it marks the moment of equilibrium between Degas’s debt to the old masters and his newfound determination to paint his world. The image is simultaneously archaic and contemporary, and the miracle is that it looks natural.

Manet/Degas Metropolitan Museum
Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, 1858–1867, oil on canvas, 79 x 100 in. Musée d’Orsay. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Following the failure of The Bellelli Family to achieve notice at the 1867 Salon, Degas rolled up the canvas and kept it in a succession of studios as he moved around Paris. After his death, its rediscovery caused a sensation. It is, in its way, as radical as Olympia. Manet must have had some presentiment of the reception Olympia would receive, but Degas miscalculated if he expected an epic-sized portrait of domestic strain to yield immediate recognition.

Soon after these two Salons, Manet sat for a series of drawings and prints by Degas, all dated ca. 1868. They reside within a larger array of portraits Degas produced at the same time of fellow artists. The subjects, among them James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot and Henri Michel-Lévy, often appear dapper if a touch world-weary. The works reveal Degas’s command of the genre, free of commercial implications and expectations of flattery (Manet excelled in the same arena, witness his portraits here of writers Emil Zola, George Moore and Stéphane Mallarmé). The amplitude of Manet studies suggests Degas’s respect for his colleague. Co-curator Stephan Wolohojian notes “the very moving and rather extraordinary series of drawings that capture Manet in different moments, in different frames of mind, truly evocative of the kind of familiarity that just doesn’t come with casual observation.” They exhibit the extraordinarily deft touch of Degas’s draftsmanship from that period. Manet doesn’t appear to have reciprocated; he preferred to draw with a brush, and no drawings by him of Degas seem to have survived.

Soon thereafter an incident occurred that damaged their friendship. The rift is accounted for here, in a painting on loan from Japan: a double portrait of Manet and his wife which Degas gifted to the couple, only to find later that Manet cut out the portrait of his wife, presumably because he thought it made her look unattractive. Degas took back the painting and returned a still life Manet had given him. An irrevocable situation, yet an admiration survived. In Degas’s telling, he wrote Manet, “Monsieur, I am sending you back your Plums,” but later turned rueful.“What a lovely painting that was! It was a clever thing I did that day, and no mistake! When I made it up with Manet, I asked him to give me back my Plums, and he had sold it!”

Manet/Degas Metropolitan Museum
Édouard Manet, Repose (Le Repos), ca. 1871, oil on canvas, 59 1/8 x 44 7/8 in. RISD Museum. Bequest of Mrs. Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt Gerry

Manet and Degas continued to inhabit the same orbit. A gallery in the show is devoted to the intricate relationships with the Morisot family, whose home was an artistic and social meeting place. In the late 1860s, Manet started using Berthe Morisot as a model, first as a principal figure in The Balcony, and over the next five years in a series of individual portraits. Morisot was a major artist as well, and their creative relationship, once described as mentor/student, is now thought to have been symbiotic (Morisot was livid when, on the eve of making her Salon debut, Manet visited and rather than offering advice, repainted a large portion of her canvas). Included here are Repose, a full-length portrait of Morisot resplendent; a small study looking gorgeous with a bouquet of violets; and an oil sketch of her in mourning for her father. It’s long been assumed that Manet loved her, though any chance for a union was dashed, first by his own marriage, then by Morisot’s wedding to Manet’s brother in 1874. Around the time Morisot began sitting for Manet, Degas dropped by the Morisot house to paint Berthe’s sister, Yves. His unfinished canvas is supplemented in the Met’s collection by preliminary drawings and a pastel. Letters within the Morisot family reveal the sisters and their mother assessing Degas’s talent and personality. Maybe his brief presence signaled a romantic trial balloon; if so, nothing came of it.  There’s nothing in the studies to suggest flirtation. Degas never married, and the circumstances of his private life are opaque. Yet he was given to sentimentality on behalf of old friends. After she died, Degas bought Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot in mourning.

Manet/Degas Metropolitan Museum
Edgar Degas, In a Café, 1873, oil on canvas, 36.2 × 26.8 in. Musée d’Orsay. Bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo, 1911

Far less tangled and no less intriguing is the correlation between two paintings inspired by a favorite watering hole, La Nouvelle Athènes. Plum Brandy by Manet and Degas’s In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), both depict the bar’s interior. Moreover, both use the same model, the actress Ellen Andrée (she also posed for more affectionate images by Renoir). Installing the canvases side-by-side invites us to define the artists’ similarities and clarify their distinctions (for what it’s worth, Degas painted and exhibited his work first). Both paintings examine the ennui of drink, each framing the figures geometrically, Manet with hard vertical and horizontal lines that face the picture plane, Degas leading us into an asymmetrical design with diagonals. Manet’s version is sumptuous in color and paint handling—the gold, red, and coral tones contrast with the woman’s blousy expression. The whole piece is an irresistible bit of painting—those foreshortened hands, the wonderful fingers, diminutive pink sausages!—late Manet at his best. The color scheme of the Degas is comparatively dreary, corresponding to the weariness of Andrée and her fellow sot, the artist Marcellin Desboutin, a bohemian out of central casting, who is also in the show as the subject of a life-size portrait by Manet. Degas painted Andrée as a prostitute, by the looks of it three sheets to the wind. It will be noted how often Manet and Degas’s realism was based on artifice, their models adopting assigned roles. Manet is generally more sympathetic, especially where women are concerned.

Manet/Degas does more than compare two great painters. It shows them engaged in a remote dialogue, restlessly moving from portraiture to cafe life, from the racetrack to the ballet, from the hat shop to the recital room, from the bar to the boudoir, and doing it all without competition from anyone except each other. The show is so deep that I’ve neglected to mention dozens of masterworks. The galleries are crowded, but if too many people are mesmerized by Olympia, you may find A Cotton Office in New Orleans, Lola de Valence, or Nude Arranging her Hair to be relatively accessible. See them all.