Edouard Manet And The Mystery Of The Crowd

Edouard Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass", which depicts figures of technically "incorrect" proportions.


Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time.


Edouard Manet – ‘Music in the Tuileries’ (1862).  76 cm x 1.18 m

Let’s start with ‘Music in the Tuileries’ – a dense, horizontal painting of well-to-do people congregating in the imperial gardens. This a world that should be familiar to readers of Marcel Proust; the world of polite society, of formal gestures at social functions and the various protocols of class which all must scrupulously obey. The raising of hats, the exchanging of aesthetic judgements – of saying hello to your auntie and her friends. And yet the public space is still so narrow and definite. The figures are all hemmed in together, each rather awkwardly invading the other’s space between the trees. Everyone’s struggling to keep up appearances but manage to betray themselves in a gesture or an expression. There’s an overwhelming air of unspoken embarrassment.


The overall imperative of the eye and the use of color relationships is what makes the most convincing case for Manet’s greatness. Take note of the odd tendencies towards asymmetry and wonky off-centredness. His bold use of impasto. The blurring of the middle and near distance (I could go on). Above all else a painting like ‘The Tuileries’ insists on its fact as painting – that it is finally and essentially an illusion on a flat surface. We see firm, form-creating brush strokes forming those Naples yellow dresses before we even see what material the fabrics are made from. But none of this is to suggest that Manet was a formalist. If Manet had just simply been looking for a ‘pretext’ to paint, then there were far less elaborate means available to him for consideration. In fact, most of his paintings have something complex to say for themselves, and are informed by the same kind of strange impulses and obsessions that he would return to again and again throughout his career.


Manet’s paintings are about a lot. Perhaps even too much. They’re a variation on a theme of modernity. They’re an exercise in enigma. They’re a grown-up  investigation of the bourgeois psyche. They are a dream of escape and immediacy mixed together with a sense of not-knowing-who-or-where-one-is. These various  weighty preoccupations and responsibilities are inseparable from Manet’s living and working in 19th century Paris and the city’s various surfaces and appearances. But sheer vividness – the feeling of necessity – always wins out. Sheer vividness trumps everything. Even if you don’t understand the painting’s motives, it grabs you by the throat.

Edouard Manet's "Rue Mosnier With Flags"
Edouard Manet – ‘Rue Mosnier with Flags’ (1878) 66 cm x 81 cm


Manet’s work represents a massive historical crisis for painterly realism. For Gustave Courbet, realism was all about peasants and the revolution. For Manet, it was about perception and the arresting power of superficial appearances. Manet shows a world that’s really stark and vivid and everything seems to  glow with a sense of its own  mystery. But he refuses to draw us in further with any clear sense of meaning. Manet can be anecdotal – he really did see that crippled veteran in the painting of the ‘Rue Mosnier with Flags’ – but no pathos can survive unless Manet extends all of his creative energies into the painting’s sense of touch and color. In his case, more so than any other realist painter before or since, it’s we, the audience, who are called to ‘step in’ and complete the meaning of the work for ourselves.


Modern life is uncertain. That’s one of the more objective things you can say about it. In fact, things like crisis and uncertainty aren’t just normal – they’re baked into everything. Change and the nervous anticipation of change are a constant in all of our daily lives. Nobody seems really capable of imagining a viable alternative to the worlds in which we live. Nor do we have any accurate means to predict whether things will get better or worse over time. No one likes it. But we have to go along with it.

Edouard Manet - "Breakfast in the Studio", which shows a young man in a deeply black jacket.
Edouard Manet – ‘Breakfast in the Studio’ (1868) 118 x 153.9 cm.


Society hacks like the salon artists hated Manet’s guts. They couldn’t understand why someone would choose to paint the things he painted. It’s funny to consider how attitudes have shifted. Now, when we look at Manet’s ‘Breakfast in the Studio’, we can’t help but see a really great painting. The tonal sparkle, the understated primary hues. The dull, even shimmer of the patterned fabrics. You’ve certainly never seen a painting where black looked quite so good. Yet, something still appears to be off. The elimination of half-tones in Manet’s palette greatly reduces the quantity of apparent space. The figures appear to be assembled from different worlds. No one touches or acknowledges one another. The youth looks out of the picture with that same, enigmatic look we see in a lot of Manet’s other works. It’s the look from ‘The Bar at The Folies Bergere’.  It’s the look from ‘Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe’. It’s the look that draws us in.


‘You put a blob of yellow here, and another at the further edge of the canvas: straight away a rapport is established between them. Color acts in the way that music does,’ said Georges Braque. Our eyes connect the blobs because we look at the whole and focus on the center first before moving off towards the perimeter. Manet takes little for granted in his major works and his architectures invite us to negotiate the paintings in unfamiliar ways, to feel our way around them. But Manet wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants the lyrical and the moral. The mysterious and the obvious. He wants both. The painting of the studio seems to creak under its own freezing spotlight of stage-management. Nobody moves and nobody speaks. Instead, it’s Manet’s amazing color-sense that does all the talking. The dramatic contrast of the yellow in amongst all that gray, black and eggshell-blue, is really like a visual shock.

Edouard Manet's "View of the Exposition Universelle" depicts a less urban scene, with human interactions spaced out.
Edouard Manet – ‘View of the Exposition Universelle’ (1867) 108 x 196 cm.


In his painting of the ‘Exposition Universelle’, Manet gives us a very different portrait of a public gathering to the one he made earlier in ‘Music in the Tuileries’. Here, there is no sense of contact nor any sign of social embarrassment. People are no longer obliged to touch one another, listening, jostling and being polite. Instead, the crowd has been thinned out into individual, discrete groups of cosmopolitans: everyone inhabiting their own little isolated pocket of existence. In fact, the dispersal of the figures appears to be so casual and with such a serious refusal to framing, that one is tempted to call the painting an exercise in anti-composition or the anti-picturesque. It is as if the city has become something indistinct and seemingly random, held in place by mere vision and design. A world in which there are no relations – only images arranged in their place.


Manet’s work had the potential to give form to the mystery of the crowd. You could say that the painting of the ‘Exposition’ (and perhaps all of his paintings) are really about the way in which these figures belong to the space they stand in and it’s belonging to them. The social and material aspects of that relationship are what the painting attempts to set out to describe and its determinations for doing so – its means of describing a scene – are always an exercise in understatement. Manet’s class consciousness is as understated as his view of nature. But then again it would have to be for a bourgeois artist in the nineteenth century. He can’t allow himself to indulge in any wacky storytelling. He can’t allow himself to rise to the academic level. Instead he always wears a poker face. It’s not just a painting of Manet’s experience of the scene  but of everyone’s experience. He frames the scene the way the figures experience it together. This, it seems to me, is the key to the picture’s plainness. ‘This is what life is like’, Manet is saying  ‘for all of us now.’


Realism never stood a chance. The history of French modern painting is more or less the history of realism’s gradual implosion since the end of the 18th century. With Manet, we see the human figure being taken to new heights of voluptuousness and sophistication. But we also see the beginning of the end – the high watermark of a terminally unrealisable project. Modernist intellectual fashion would eventually turn on the notion of a painting’s inherently expressive, rather than descriptive qualities, to the point where  the very concept of realism would come to seem incompatible with the technical prescriptions of modernist theory. By the early twentieth century a typical modern artist was more concerned with his own unique aesthetic vision; his own private world of obsessions and desires than any sense of moral or political obligation to a general public. The tradeoff is palpable. There are no peasants in Matisse and no cold wind blows in Fauvism. Picasso’s early cubist collages, brilliant as they are, can never truly be terrible or disturbing. Manet’s work is like a signpost pointing in the direction of these artists – to people like Cezanne or Braque. ‘Modernism this way’ it says.

Edouard Manet's ‘The Bar at the Folies Bergere’ depicts a woman bartender, with the bar's activity reflected in the glass behind her.
Edouard Manet – ‘The Bar at the Folies Bergere’ (1882) 96 cm x 1.3 m


In ‘The Bar at the Folies Bergere’, we get a tour-de-force of spatial inventiveness, full of abstract separations and architectures. Some say this is a painting about the artist’s mortality (he painted it while struggling with a serious illness). Some say it’s an instance of Manet tipping his hat to his followers, the Impressionists. Much has been made of the various elisions or mistakes of perspective in the mirror. Manet appears to be obsessed with limiting the thrill of deep space and the pull of the vanishing point. He continually confines pictorial events to the foreground, perhaps as a way of trying to then offset this loss of depth and suspend our disbelief. Dangling above the crowd we can see part of a flying trapeze act  with an acrobat cropped off off at the ankles, just above her turquoise slippers.


The cafe-club is another one of those things in Manet that can be read as a metaphor for modern change itself. These shiny cathedrals of capitalism had  grown fat in the boom of the 60s and 70s as part of the city’s overall growing appetite for leisure and recreation. They epitomized the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a new social category known as the petit bourgeois, or the ‘aspiring middle class’ – a pantomime of false rich and false poor where anybody could pretend to be anything if they had money for clothes. Again and again we see this new Paris as a city characterized by shifts and disguises, by too many surfaces and too few lines of demarcation. The cafe club is a polarizing social symbol of what’s to come. A world where nothing is certain and everything has a price.


Just about everything in ‘The Bar at The Folies Bergere’ insists on its frontality; on its being parallel to the picture-plane. From the acidic brushy circles of white paint which stand in for electric light (perhaps the first appearance of electrical light in a painting ever), to the red triangle superimposed on the bottle of liquor. But it’s actually this flatness, like a Japanese print, which opens up and creates depth across the surface and between the overlapping forms. As in the best high-order art, Manet is able to go beyond the trivial even as he represents the trivial world of accepted norms, bad taste, fashion and consumerism. He co-opts these things as part of an overall critique. After all, modern painting for Manet was all about the contrivance of modern life as modern form. In other words, the truth of the life allowed to that barmaid and the space she inhabits, is precisely this signature sense of flatness, of unreality. The girl at the bar stands in for all of us. Her experience of being on guard, her sense of having a public life in a public space, whilst being  watched and scrutinized, is the truth of public life as we all know it today. A life where public space and private space are often blurred. Where we must  put on our best face and give nothing away.


Manet likes to mislead. The form of life he represents is one ruled by surface appearances. And yet, appearance can never be taken for granted. Another impossibility: in ‘The Bar at The Folies Bergere’ we, the viewers, are placed more or less where the male customer (Manet?) is standing and look into the picture through his POV. And yet this cannot be true. We are at the center whereas he is confined to the margin. The reflections don’t add up. Paradoxically, this creates the impression that the barmaid is somehow doing both for us, looking out and looking into the painting at the same time. Her expression is blank, but also playful and ironic. Irony and playfulness are perhaps the meaning of the painting as well as the means of application. Attached but not attached. Knowing but distant. The barmaid is fierce and upright but nonetheless confined and constrained by the odd spaces and displacements around her. She flirts with her customer, but that just seems to be part of her regular duties. She is performing in her role as an object among other such objects seemingly for sale.

Edouard Manet's ‘Gare Saint-Lazare’ or ‘The Railway’ (1873) depicts a woman at a railway staring at the viewer, with her child in a blue dress behind.
Edouard Manet – ‘Gare Saint-Lazare’ or ‘The Railway’ (1873) 93 cm x 1.12 m


Victorine Meurent, Manet’s lover and model, exhibits another one of those signature expressions in a picture Manet paints of the Gare Saint-Lazare. The railway is another one of his metaphors for the incessant, constantly changing shapes of Parisian modern life. The black verticals of the trellis in front of the whiteness of the rising steam are like the bars of an iron cage. A girl wearing a pleated polonaise dress is shown looking in through the bars while her governess, a bourgois-looking teenager, looks straight out of the picture – and at us. Or rather, she seems to be caught in the middle of something, as two fingers keep her place in the pages of a chapter book or a train timetable propped open in her lap next to a sleeping puppy. She might be looking at the artist (as they appear to be situated in his garden) or perhaps not. We’re led to enjoy the sense of anticipation, that soon the moment, like the steam of the engine will dissipate and be done with. The train will pass. Victorine will lower her gaze. The moment will be over. But in this interval, the young woman’s expression, her immaculately casual self-composure seems almost the pure embodiment of ‘outness’ or ‘thereness’. Like the girl in the bar or the boy in the studio, she faces us with complete control, giving nothing of herself away whatsoever.


Often this sense of distinction is crucial to our savoring of the scene and generates endless imaginative possibilities. Why paint this moment and not something else? Who knows. Nothing is revealed without concealing something else. Nothing is really stable or fixed. An image then, perhaps of a general constitutive instability. The hurrying, restless spirit of the new age of individualism and modern capitalism. The critic Michael Fried famously used terms such as ‘facingness’ to describe this’ turning-towards’ of Manet’s subjects. It’s an especially appropriate term for the Railway painting. Here, it’s not just Victorine, but the whole picture which faces us, and confronts us with our mutual facing.

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