Friday Art Cat: Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883)



Edouard Manet   (1832-1883)

Excerpt from the website

“Édouard Manet was the most important and influential artist to have heeded poet Charles Baudelaire’s call to artists to become painters of modern life. Manet had an upper-class upbringing, but also led a bohemian life, and was driven to scandalize the French Salon public with his disregard for academic conventions and his strikingly modern images of urban life. He has long been associated with the Impressionists; he was certainly an important influence on them and he learned much from them himself. However, in recent years critics have acknowledged that he also learned from the Realism and Naturalism of his French contemporaries, and even from 17th century Spanish painting. This twin interest in Old Masters and contemporary Realism gave him the crucial foundation for his revolutionary approach.

Manet’s modernity lies above all in his eagerness to update older genres of painting by injecting new content or by altering the conventional elements. He did so with an acute sensitivity to historical tradition and contemporary reality. This was also undoubtedly the root cause of many of the scandals he provoked.

He is credited with popularizing the technique of alla prima painting. Rather than build up colors in layers, Manet would immediately lay down the hue that most closely matched the final effect he sought. The approach came to be used widely by the Impressionists, who found it perfectly suited to the pressures of capturing effects of light and atmosphere whilst painting outdoors.

His loose handling of paint, and his schematic rendering of volumes, led to areas of “flatness” in his pictures. In the artist’s day, this flatness may have suggested popular posters or the artifice of painting – as opposed to its realism. Today, critics see this quality as the first example of “flatness” in modern art.”

Woman with a cat, 1880, Oil on canvas – Tate London

From the Tate website: “This unfinished portrait is of Manet’s wife. It is one of his later works, painted a few years before his death at the age of fifty-one. These were the most freely painted of his career. He then also used pastel, and the parallel shading of this sketch is like the application of pastels. Manet then favoured small scale and casual subjects.”

Olympia 1893, Oil on canvas – Musée d’Orsay

Where is the cat, you might ask?  Well it’s black and on the bed at the right…

“Representing a lower-class prostitute, Manet’s Olympiaconfronts the bourgeois viewer with a hidden, but well-known, reality. Purposefully provocative, it shocked the viewers of the 1865 Salon. Olympia’s references to Titan’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Goya’s Maja Desnuda (1799-1800) fit easily into the traditional “boudoir” genre, yet they culminate in a rather informal and individual portrait of a woman unashamed of her body. It is popularly thought that Olympia is a pictorial depiction of passages from Baudelaire’s famous collection of poems called Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). For instance, Manet rather overtly includes a black cat, symbolizing heightened sexuality and prostitution – a characteristically Baudelarian symbol.”

A lovely comparison of these two cat paintings comes from the Telegraph website, by Alastair Smart:

“Manet is perhaps best known as the scandaliser of the bourgeoisie, who shocked 19th-century Paris with his fleshy double-whammy of 1863: Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’s naked lunch and Olympia’s naked prostitute.

Speaking for many critics of the time, Ernest Chesneau lamented Manet’s “taste for the inconceivably vulgar” and “choosing subjects solely to create a furore”. The journalist and future Minister of Culture, Antonin Proust, claimed in turn: “If the canvas of Olympia wasn’t slashed and destroyed, that’s only because of the precautions taken by the Salon administration”.

Olympia reclines coolly on her chaise longue, surveying the viewer (her next client) with a look as clinical as the exchange that’s about to take place. Though boasting a fine art-historical pedigree, based as it is on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the painting caused outrage for rendering its model not as an idealised, ancient goddess but as an unashamedly contemporary whore from Montmartre. Inspired by the Realism of Courbet, as well as Baudelaire’s call for artists to paint “modern life”, Manet said matter-of-factly: “I just paint what I see. Could anything be plainer?”

This, though, was surely a little disingenuous. He must have known he’d inflame matters by substituting Titian’s faithful dog, asleep at Venus’s feet, for a livewire black cat – with its tail raised, back arched and eyes firmly on us. Black cats, of course, had satanic overtones, dating back to their association with witchcraft in medieval Christianity (in 1233, Pope Gregory IX even issued an edict for their extermination, along with that of their female owners). And then there’s the fact that the word “cat” in French slang means female genitalia – much as a word for cat in English slang means the same.

Olympia is never loaned by the Musée d’Orsay.  Manet is dubbed “the father of modern art”: for his modern subject matter and radical paint-handling. Woman with a Cat is a good example of the latter. Painted in cross-hatches with a free, pastel-like effect, the black Zizi and pink-robed Suzanne seem to dissolve into the walls behind them, and indeed into the very fabric of the canvas itself.

The lack of finish reflects the intimacy Manet had for his subjects. The warmth he felt for Zizi is also conveyed in its cosy posture, its loving plumpness – which matches Suzanne’s own – and its little white muzzle. Even in so sketchy a form, this is patently a real cat, in contrast to the devilishly black, symbolic one in Olympia.

So what, if anything, do the two feline paintings amount to? Well, I guess it’s important that Manet painted Woman with a Cat in 1880, three years before his death. He suffered with syphilis and rheumatism in his later years, meaning he socialised less and less in his old Quartier de’l Europe haunts. And though he painted Suzanne throughout his career, Woman with a Cat reflects the increasingly domestic existence he was now living. How things had changed from the swinging 1860s, the days of Olympia, when he was embracing all that Paris had to offer.

Calling the two cats self-portraits might be stretching things a bit, but not by much. They surely represent two different stages of Manet’s life: marking his shift from universal notoriety to domestic tranquility.”


Sara Day

I am an artist who makes work of animals and people.

Three cats live with me – Maine coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio.

Commissions, and indeed any enquiries – welcomed.

Instagram: Sardine.Art

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5 thoughts on “Friday Art Cat: Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883)

  1. greg-in-washington says:

    Guess I will jump in today. The lady with the cat on her lap is thinking, I have to go to the loo! I wish the cat would get off my lap! I have seen the painting of Olympia many times over the years, and this is the first time I ever saw the cat–I wonder why?

  2. MARIANNA BURT says:

    Don’t forget “The Cats’ Rendezvous,” Manet’s dramatic lithograph (1868), where the cats are the center of attention in their own right.

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