PRINT March 1975

Manet: A Radicalized Female Imagery

MANET WAS FIRST CALLED an iconoclast by his contemporaries; history has more than agreed. In fact, on that high road to what is popularly called modernism, Manet’s name is written first. He earned this position almost entirely on the basis of his formal innovations. Who is unfamiliar with the Manet liturgy which endlessly marches out the flatness, tonalism, foreshortened shadows, and peculiar perspective of his painting? While all of these are undeniable attributes of his work, they constitute only a partial inventory of his vision; they in no way evoke the extraordinary scope and power of his genius. For Manet was essentially a realist whose unique vision lay as much in the novelty and acuteness of his contemporary social imagery as it did in his formal discoveries.

Manet critics have been so indoctrinated by a formalist view of modern art history—a view which sees a relentless development from Manet to the present in terms of abstract formal components—that inquiry into the social, political and psychological implications of his imagery has until recently been anathema. There are some outstanding exceptions. Linda Nochlin and Theodore Reff and N. P. Sandblad have addressed themselves to more broadly based, humanistic questions.1 I would like to extend that inquiry with an analysis of Manet’s attitude toward women.

Manet was an idiosyncratic realist. With the Impressionists in the 1870s and ’80s, he painted the milieu and mores of his own bourgeois life style. The revolutionary position that he and the Impressionists shared was their adoption, on a large scale, of such bourgeois subjects as picnics, boating, concerts, etc. Where they differed was in their approach to social etiquette in that ambiance. Whereas the Impressionists, with the exception of Degas, painted a social imagery dictated by stereotypic social behavior, Manet never did. Renoir, or Monet early in his career, painted the friendly social encounters of daily life, but Manet in the same context reversed the expected protocol. For example, Manet would paint a couple or a mother and child, but he denied them their stereotyped exchanges: the couple ignored each other, the mother instead of being loving, behaved selfishly. He did this in the interest of portraying the unritualized .and uncommemorated habits of daily life, not as they were brushed up and shaken out for company or for a work of art, but as they persistently and prosaically existed.

The dynamic of Manet’s special brand of realism was to start with a time-honored theme, or convention, then emphatically withhold its most characteristic traits. On one hand, he upheld the element of tradition, crucial to the dynamic of his realism. On the other hand he unmasked it as the anachronism, disguise, or delimiting social ritual that he saw it to be. The more stringent the etiquette of the original convention the more disconcerting and radicalized Manet’s images finally appear. Since there are few conventions more entrenched in the history of art and social conduct than those relating to women, it is in his images of women that Manet’s irreverent habits of mind and peculiar realism are clearest cut. If one analyzes his images of women and compares them to contemporary images—both avant-garde and academic—one will discover not only the dynamic of his realism but his radical perception of the modern French woman as well.

Manet painted women in a variety of social contexts: the isolated portrait, the reclining nude, the nude with other figures, man and woman, woman and child. His version of the reclining nude, of course, exists as a classic of its kind. The conventions associated with that figure, whether the image was of Venus or some anonymous odalisque, always emphasized female sensuality and tacitly implied its availability. Manet’s Olympia of 1863 does neither. She is not voluptuous in a traditional sense nor is she served up to the viewer. Quite the contrary. She is aloof, self-contained and almost disdainful; she dares her visitor and stares him down. One braceleted hand plays with a luxuriant shawl while the other assertively rests on her thigh. A red hothouse orchid in her hair and a black velvet ribbon around her throat flaunt, rather than offer, her nakedness. Olympia is a contemporary, nonidealized woman posing as Venus. Perhaps it is this denial of tradition which partially explains the furor triggered by the painting. For, we are told that “Sticks and umbrellas were brandished in [her] face,”2 and that she was “a degraded model picked up I know not where.”3

Theodore Reff in “The Meaning of Manet’s Olympia” in part attributes the contemporary emotional resonance of the painting to a literary source, Dumas fits’ novel, La Dame aux camélias, 1848. (In this popular novel and play, a heartless courtesan is named Olympia.) Reff interprets Olympia as an image of a contemporary woman living on the fringes of respectable society, a member of the demi-monde of the Second Empire. Complete with lascivious cat and exotic black maid, she certainly was an inflammatory image to present to the Parisian public.

Reff’s interpretation is provocative and convincing. His argument, however, can be taken further, for his analysis omits the crucial ingredient of irony in Manet’s sensibility. Considering some of Manet’s other paintings of the time with their tongue-in-cheek eclecticism and disregard for propriety, it is highly unlikely that Olympia was primarily conceived of as a straightforward depiction of a courtesan. For example, Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1862) depicts a woman, painted in the style of Velazquez, impersonating one of the most machismo-type males imaginable; Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) is a risqué contemporary picnic painted with the imagery of Raphael and Giorgione in mind. Just as Manet was mocking stereotypes of one kind or another in the above two paintings, he was doing the same in Olympia. Her very posture as Venus heightens the irony of the rejected scenario. Olympia arrogantly confronts and gives the lie to every Venus, odalisque and courtesan figure ever painted. She undermines tradition and stares out at history as the self-contained model Victorine Meurend posing as a classic nude. Manet’s undermining, his subversion, of an ennobled and defended convention of femininity was surely a major, if unconscious source of spectator outrage in 1865.

Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is as unrelenting in its matter-of-fact realism and irreverence toward ritualized responses. Despite the blatantly provocative state of dress and undress in the painting, the female nude is completely uninvolved with any erotic program. She is aloof and detached from the two clothed men seated nearby. This is particularly disconcerting because artistic and social conventions dictate other behavior. As John Berger, the British critic, has said in The Listener (June 20,1972): “A woman in the culture of privileged Europeans is first and foremost a sight to be looked at. . . . Her nakedness is not an expression of her own active feelings: it is a sign of her submission.” Manet’s woman is no more an object to be looked at than she is a creature of submission. These are precisely the conventions she rejects. She in no way engages in the erotic fête champêtre of which she is apparently a member; stark naked, she nonetheless refuses the erotic script. She remains her own woman and inaccessible. She is the model Victorine Meurend posing with other models for a painting. Once again, conventional and expected behavior is denied in the interest of a prosaic and demythicized realism. The reality in this painting is an event in the artist’s studio. Again discomfort is produced by the simultaneous assertion and betrayal of stereotypes.

Just as the schematic outdoor backdrop belies a natural setting, so the indifference of the nude woman amidst clothed men undermines the sexual expectancies inherent in the theme. When Gérôme painted The Slave Market (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. c. 1867), he adhered to that sexual etiquette absolutely. A young woman, who is apparently having her teeth examined, has been totally undressed for the occasion. She stands titillatingly close to a densely wrapped Arab who is exploring her mouth; she submits to him and visually to us.

Even when approaching the revered subject of motherhood, Manet’s position was outrageous and unconventional. The subject, almost as sacred as the Virgin and Christ child themselves, was a favorite among his contemporaries. The convention is well known: mothers are always loving and attentive. In the Gare St. Lazare (1873), exhibited in the Salon of 1874, Manet banished the loving, patient and attentive mother—the secularized Virgin of the 19th century. Instead he painted a woman and her child who, while physically close, are psychically distant. Each is located in her own time and space. The mother, distracted from her book for a moment, looks up at us, the passerby or Manet; the child is turned away. The mother is alert, intelligent, inquiring; the child, mannequinlike. The shared moments and familial warmth demanded by mother-child conventions have vanished. A moment of ungilded realism confronts the viewer instead. Mothers, in fact, have their own moments, times when they are self-involved and emotionally detached from their children. The mother in Manet’s painting appears to be an able and responsible middle-class French woman, a person who, in fact, would not continually be subsumed in her child’s world. What is staggering is that Manet dared to paint a woman who so openly challenged a sacred social stereotype. Compared to contemporary images, Manet’s painting is positively irreverent. (For example, A. Jourdan’s A Mother, Salon, 1872, Renoir’s Mother and Children, Frick Collection, 1874–76, and Leon Bonnat’s First Steps, Salon, 1874.)

Manet is his most unorthodox and provocative, however, when painting couples. Romantic convention has dictated that men and women in close proximity pay attention to each other and more specifically that the woman provide erotic possibilities; she pauses, she hesitates nervously, she teases. A convention which usually follows these rules in art is the serenade; Titian’s Venus with a Lute Player and Watteau’s La Gamme d’Amour may serve as examples. Manet’s The Music Lesson (1870) could not be further from the required convivial intercourse. The earmarks of a tryst are present—guitar, couch, man and woman—but none of the expected erotic high. A stolidly serious, bourgeois couple sit stiffly side by side, each isolated in his or her own psychic ambiance. Each is autonomous. The artistic convention, echoing middle-class fantasies, demands interaction, but reality need not comply. Indeed, the contemporary bourgeois sense of propriety—a brand of French Victorianism—demanded a coolness which conflicted with the fantasy. The real moment between men and women was frequently an awkward one, which is exactly what Manet has captured in his painting. For he was particularly drawn to intervals of personal abstraction, ennui, and indifference. People do retreat into their own thoughts and spaces even when they are intimate. It is a mark of his good judgment that he does not overstate the candor with which he examines these situations.

A more traditional image of seduction was painted by Manet’s contemporary, M. Ballavoine. In The Interrupted Séance (1880), Ballavoine painted a woman who was apparently ready and eager for pleasure. Judging from her disarray and forlorn expression, however, her lover has rushed off in the middle of it. Tokens of his masculinity and the projected seduction—the palette and the lute—remain behind on the bed. In a somewhat disguised form, Ballavoine’s Séance is nonetheless close to such typical serenades as Watteau’s La Gamme d’Amour in London’s National Gallery.

The woman in Manet’s The Music Lesson is particularly unsettling because traditional etiquette requires that she be friendly and subordinate. Contemporary images of women in similar situations always show her charming and engaged, if not dependent. (See J. Wencker’s Under the Leaves, Salon, 1874, and Renoir’s Alfred Sisley and His Wife, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, 1868.) Only Manet’s couple is austere, and disengaged. It is not surprising that the man in Manet’s painting is depicted as choosing to be frozen or reflective (men have always had the prerogative to choose action or not). That the woman also assumes that option is amazing. She refuses to be a cliché of femininity and in so doing she rejects some of society’s most cherished and protected conventions.

Manet chose to paint psychic and social distances between people. But as usual he deliberately started with the traditional image of a loving couple and then deconventionalized it in the interest of a contemporary, nonstereotypic reality. His painting Argenteuil (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, 1874) captures just such a mood again. An uncommunicative couple sit woodenly together. She is plainly the more reluctant of the two. The myth would have her dependent, tentative, affectionate like Mme. Sisley in Renoir’s Alfred Sisley and His Wife. She refuses.

The most psychologically iconoclastic of these images is In the Conservatory (1879). The woman is positively recalcitrant. Far from being demure, retiring or attentive, she is extraordinarily self-confident and self-engrossed. Where has one ever seen a woman own the space in which she sits as this woman does? She neither folds her hands in her lap nor feigns some other retiring gesture; she sits nonchalantly yet imperiously, one arm draped over the top of the bench, the other calmly but assuredly holding (one is tempted to say, wielding) a parasol. She is self-possessed, lost in thought. There is not a hint of flirtation anywhere. In fact, during the moment of the painting, the woman ignores her companion, who, it turns out, is her husband.

Manet’s images of courtship and love, robbed as they are of their mythic scaffolding, are bold indeed. His women are seen as strong, autonomous beings, firmly saying no to centuries of conventional behavior. They are not available, seductive, good-tempered, pleasant, helpful or patient. In no way do they resemble updated versions of Venus, Flora, Mary or Salome. Manet’s women are only people. For example, in the Conservatory, he painted Monsieur and Madame Guillemet who together ran the most fashionable clothing shop in Paris. Mme. Guillemet does not look helpless, coy, idle or dependent, simply because Manet did not so see her.

Manet’s view of women was consistent with the overall development of the realistic program of his art. In the 1860s his realism played itself off between specific art-historical sources. The two works of 1863, Olympia and the Déjeuner, used older artists’ libretti, transforming their declared fictions into images of studio events. Manet’s realism of the 1870s and ’80s, however, grew out of his day-to-day experience. Undoubtedly the Franco-Prussian War and the even more bloody Commune of 1871 contributed to his belief that the time of Venuses, however ironically portrayed, had passed. He began to turn for his reference point to a strictly bourgeois version of reality, the day-to-day experience of the leisured upper middle class.

The women in his paintings of the ’70s and ’80s were bourgeois women of the Third Republic whom he clearly appreciated as people. Some he knew intimately,4 others he observed on the boulevards and in the cafés. With more and more frequency in the 19th century, middle-class women shed the anonymity and clichés of past tradition. They were more present in the world, more visible as doers. That was especially clear in Paris where women could be seen at the cafés, shopping, working in shops, etc. The fact that women worked outside the home, in clear view, had to alter the idealized image of woman that demanded fragility and dependency.

The middle-class woman had become a more present and potent force during the century, in part because of the rising number of the petite bourgeoisie. Where she lacked power in public affairs, she had tremendous power at home in domestic affairs, and in fact was emerging as a major client-consumer. The appearance at the end of the century of large department stores like Bon Marché (1876) and Magasin Printemps (1889) attest to that fact. The Parisian bourgeoise was riot merely an adornment, a luscious cornucopia, or a doll. She was also obstinate, courageous and shrewd like her husband, and that is the woman Manet painted.

Other painters were not as observant. Neither avant-garde nor academic artists challenged the stereotypic images of women. They painted the reality endorsed by convention. It is not surprising that academic artists defended these ideals, but one tends to expect more of an avant-garde artist—which is a mistake. In fact, it is often uncharacteristic of avant-garde artists to challenge social or political conventions in their art, for the concept “avant-garde” has traditionally been limited to formal and stylistic considerations. That artists like Monet, Renoir and Pissarro can be absolutely conservative in their depiction of social exchanges and yet be called radical (“avant-garde”) by their times and history, indicates that the concept avant-garde has been ideologically limited and needs re-evaluating.

Manet was the first to become avant-garde in both senses of the term. That he radicalized female imagery was only, to be sure, one of the many effects of his socially conscious vision. Nevertheless, it was an outstanding gauge of the irony, wit, and bravery of his mind which submitted neither to social nor stylistic etiquettes.

Eunice Lipton



1. See Linda Nochlin, “The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France 1830–80,” The Avant-Garde, eds. Thomas B. Hess and lohn Ashbersi, New York, 1968; Theodore Reff, “The Meaning of Manet’s Olympia,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 63, February, 1964; N. P. Sandblad, “Manet,” Three Studies in Artistic Conception, Sweden, 1954.

2. Statement of E. Bazire, quoted in P. Courthion, Edouard Manet, New York, 1961, p. 76.

3. J. Claretie, L’Artiste, May 15, 1865, quoted in G. Hamilton, Manet and His Critics, New Haven, 1954, p. 73

4. Among Manet’s paintings of compelling women whom he knew well are: Portrait of Eva Gonzales (National Gallery, London, 1870), a portrait of an aspiring young woman painter; Repose (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R. I., 1870–71), a painting of Berthe Morisot, a respected member of the Impressionist group; Marguerite de Conflans (Smith College Museum, Northampton, Mass., 1873), a portrait of an educated amateur and admirer of contemporary art, music and writing; The Woman with the Fans (Louvre, 1873–74), an image of Nina de Callias, known to be a talented musician and a marvelously intelligent woman; and Emilie Ambre in the Role of Carmen (1879–80), a portrait of a well-known opera singer. Manet’s interest in lively women was even evident in casual works. In an ink and pencil sketch, c. 1875-80, he drew the head of Mlle. Juliette Dodu, a heroine of the Franco-Prussian War who, while working in the post office, managed to capture enemy telegraph communications (illustrated in Vent Camille Pissarro, December 3, 1928, Paris, Galerie George Petit, p. 67, no. 70).