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Manet’s art lesson in (almost) monochrome

Manet's painting of Lunch on the Grass

The French artist, Edouard Manet, was an intriguing and paradoxical figure. He was handsome, utterly captivating and astonishingly talented. Yet he was also a person who horrified much of Parisian polite society in the 1860s. Why? Because he had painted (exceedingly well) two of the most notoriously sexually-charged pictures in the history of French art.

Lunch on the Grass

The first, from 1863, had the innocent title of “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (or “Lunch on the grass”). The picture was hotly condemned as being depraved, since it depicted a naked woman at a picnic, sitting alongside two fully-clothed men – as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The second picture, from 1865, was titled “Olympia” and depicted a bold and naked prostitute in full-frontal repose. Again, conventional society’s moral outrage against Manet was incandescent. With the protection of his undeniable talent and his family’s upper middle class social status, Manet shrugged it all off. But his female model for these two pictures, Victorine-Louise Meurent, was not so fortunate – at least initially. She was largely shunned as a model owing to her notorious association with Manet. But in a twist of fate Meurent later became a successful artist – highly unusual for a woman of the time.

Berthe Morisot

Manet's painting of Berthe Morisot

Manet’s next female model – who was already an accomplished artist in her own right – was the thirty-year-old Berthe Morisot. Her relationship with the already-married Manet has been described breezily as being flirtatious, but she seems to have had a real impact on the way that Manet painted. Morisot was part of the emerging Impressionist movement and she was experimenting with a varied palette of pastel colours and subtle light effects in her paintings. Owing to the perceived messiness of their art, the proto-Impressionists were described by a prominent Parisian art critic of the time as being “a group of five or six lunatics, one of whom is a woman” – that woman being Morisot.

Despite Manet’s own unconventional direction – in explicit subject matter, at least – he was not (yet) artistically convinced by the use of kaleidoscopic colours and soft light. Manet decided to make his point about contrasting colour and light by painting a portrait that was defiantly un-pastel – being almost monochrome. His picture would also include a hard demarcation of light, unlike the fuzzy, dappled light favoured by the proto-Impressionists. To complete Manet’s art lesson, the model for the near monochrome portrait would be none other than the colour-inclined Berthe Morisot herself. The portrait would be titled “Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes.”

The Spanish influence

In his determination to demonstrate the impact of shades of black in his painting, Manet called upon the techniques of the earlier Spanish masters, Velazquez and Goya. In painting Morisot in this so-called Spanish style, Manet depicted her in black mourning dress and went as far as colouring Morisot’s compelling eyes almost black, although in life they were actually bright green. To further emphasize his contrasting effects, in the studio Manet lit Morisot’s face with intense white light from only one side.

Viewing the painting “from the outside in” we have a background of near white, while closer in we have the dramatic blacks of Morisot’s outfit. Closer in again, we have Morisot’s illuminated and shaded face, given definition under her chin by black material, while our attention is drawn to a dramatic slash of unruly brown hair above one eye. Finally, the muted violets near the bottom of the portrait break up what would otherwise be a solid mass of black. Although meticulously composed, the quick and broad brushwork – which even allows the texture of the canvas to be visible – imparts to the portrait a sense of immediacy, spontaneity and liveliness.

Ironically, having executed this masterpiece in near monochrome, Manet – with Morisot’s keen encouragement – was himself soon converted to the colourful and dappled light techniques of French Impressionism.

Manet’s “Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes” can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – as can the paintings of Berthe Morisot.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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