Exhibit of the week
Manet and Modern Beauty
The Art Institute of Chicago, through Sept. 8
Though he lived in pain during his final years, “Édouard Manet was still capable of expressing joie de vivre in his art,” said J.S. Marcus in The Wall Street Journal. The artist who had dealt a death blow to European painting’s staid conventions was not yet 50 in the late 1870s when he began suffering neurodegenerative damage brought on by tertiary syphilis. But he was lauded as a painter of modern life, and his work was once again welcome at the prestigious Paris Salon. As illness crippled him, his art changed: The canvases shrank, his models came indoors, and the focus turned to the celebration of beauty. But the organizers of this first-ever show dedicated to Manet’s late career want to put to rest the idea that his talent had vanished with his health.
For decades following Manet’s death, his late work was dismissed by critics and scholars as overly prettified, said Kyle MacMillan in the Chicago Sun-Times. But Manet was following the lead his friend Charles Baudelaire had offered in “The Painter of Modern Life,” an 1863 essay that exhorted artists to notice how fashion, as a reflection of ideas about beauty, defines their fleeting moment in time. That influence is evident in the show’s 1881 centerpiece, Jeanne (Spring), a decorative portrait in which limpid-eyed actress Jeanne Demarsy appears in profile, elegantly clad and toting a lace-trimmed parasol. The painting, which was eclipsed by other Manet works before being sold in 2014 at a record price for the artist, was universally praised in its day; one critic even called it Manet’s Mona Lisa. But note how Jeanne and the other women in Manet’s late paintings are “uniformly stone-faced—beautiful but inscrutable,” said David Hammond in NewCityArt.com. In the Conservatory is an 1879 double portrait in which a finely attired woman seems to be ignoring or putting up with a beseeching man who stands behind the garden bench she’s sitting on. The man wants something; the woman is “simply bored with it all.”
Another thing you may notice in the late paintings is a keen sense of ephemerality, said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. This exhibition’s “humble yet heartrending” penultimate room is filled with small still lifes, including “little congregations of mandarins, apples, and plums” and “some of the freshest, most affecting flower paintings in the history of art.” Manet probably knew that the end was near. In spring 1883, his gangrenous left leg was amputated. Ten days later, he was dead at 51. Knowing that makes a detail like a newly cut stem near a vase reverberate with poignancy. “These flowers have just arrived. They’re a gift. Enjoy them. Nothing lasts.”