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Edouard Manet was the original rebel of the modernist art movement in Paris. Before the Impressionists broke with the established Paris Salon, it was Manet who shook up the French art establishment with his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), Olympia (1863), The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867), and countless other modernist masterpieces…

There’s a good argument to be made that Manet is the father of modern art and that without Manet, there is no Monet, Renoir, Morisot, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, O’Keeffe… 

And now, through Sept 8, 2019, you can get up close and personal with this brilliant rebel of art at the Manet and Modern Beauty exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Now, if I’m being honest, I’ve never been a fan of Manet the man. The artist, I get: his determination to overthrow traditional styles and push imagery toward modernism was brilliant, courageous, and ‘historically important.’ But the man? Nah. Not my style.

Manet dueled with critics who wrote unfavorable things about him (a temperamental bully prone to violence? No thank you), frequently cheated on his faithful wife (maybe even with his sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot; not exactly a likable choice), and when his friends and followers — Monet, Renoir, Degas and even Morisot — decided to risk their careers by breaking with the Salon and exhibit alone, Manet refused to join them because he was afraid of upsetting the Salon and missing out on a medal or two. So much for being a courageous rebel. Manet has always been too comfortably bourgeois, too stuffy, too much concerned with appearances for my tastes…

But at this exhibit, which focuses on the later years of his life and career, I saw a man that I — surprisingly — liked. At this exhibit, I met the man that his contemporaries adored. At this exhibit, I finally saw the man that might, indeed, have tempted Berthe Morisot to love him. 

During my walk through the first few rooms of the exhibit, I felt cold as always toward Manet. Yes, yes, wonderful painting here, wonderful painting there… yes, yes, he’s brilliant, brilliant… I get it, I get it… But then, I came upon this collection of letters that Manet wrote to his friends. Did you know that Manet illustrated some of his letters with little drawings of flowers and fruits and women in the latest fashions? I certainly didn’t know that. I found myself standing there, staring at these letters, wishing that I had been Manet’s friend so I too could’ve received one of these beautiful, personal, hand-decorated notes…

In that moment, I didn’t see some selfish artist consumed with his own legacy and awards and sexual conquests, but a man who took the time to add a little beauty into the lives of his friends. For no reason other than to make them — or perhaps himself — smile.

At that point, I went back to the beginning of the exhibit and started again. And this time, instead of seeing the bullying, philandering, female-objectifying, ego-manic of my imagined history, I finally saw an artist desperate to capture the humanity of his world: the relationships, small acts of interaction and friendship, and yes, the isolation of modern life. I didn’t see a man desperate for acclaim, but desperate for connection with his models, the people around him in the cafes and bars, with you his viewer

 

Look, I can’t explain, in a simple blog post, the humanity I saw in those pictures in that exhibit. I can’t tell you exactly how or why I suddenly found a streak of empathy for a seemingly inaccessible artist. (It may take me years — and a novel — to explore it for myself.) All I can do is encourage you to go up to Chicago and see if you, too, can find the man in Manet for yourself. 

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Manet and Modern Beauty
Art Institute of Chicago
Now through Sept 8, 2019