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Book of the Week: 'Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat'


This compelling biography by Beth Archer Brombert (published by University of Chicago Press, 1997 - Amazon link here), brings together most of the existing biographical sources on the artist's life, together with more recent archive material, and presents a constantly illuminating narrative of Manet's life, his friendships with other artists and writers (Monet, Baudelaire, Degas, Morisot, and above all Emile Zola), his times, and his work.

Brombert is very good at moving between details of Manet's life, his works, and the society that surrounded them. After discussing the changing nature of sexual relations in mid-nineteenth century Paris, here is her description of 'Olympia':

'Olympia', 1865
"Unlike Titian's alluring goddess, this modern Venus is not a sexual object, a plaything of the gods or men, but a self-possessed, self-assertive individual. Her body may be her stock-in-trade, but it is she who has full control over it. Though a courtesan rather than a deity, she is not a sordid streetwalker, victim of society. The opulence of her bed, the stylishness of her mules, the presence of a well-dressed servant, and the extravagant bouquet clearly indicate her status. What may have offended the viewers of 1865 far more than the painting's disregard for established techniques of modelling and half tones is the brazen look that defies the male gawker. 'You may buy my favours,' she seems to be saying, 'if I choose to grant them, but only I own me.'" (p.145)

There is so much detail of his life that is fascinating, from his legendary conversational ability that shone in the cafe society of the time, to the grotesque final months of his life when he was dying of syphilis, his body giving out bit by bit, until he died ten days after having a gangrenous leg amputated, at the age of fifty-one. A summary of Brombert's picture of Manet can be found on p. 95, where she writes:

"Manet was a complex man, full of contradictions: compassionate and generous on one side, rapier-tongued on the other; a man whose sharp and ready repartee could wound but rarely did; a dandy, a cafe idler, a boulevardier, yet an indefatigable worker with an unshakable integrity when it came to his art; a mind receptive to ideas and influences but already unmovable at twenty in his views regarding art; open, sincere, and outgoing, yet so private that dozens of people who knew him well were unable to provide a clear account of his personal life."

Manet is fortunate that his achievements as a man and an artist found such a capable and sympathetic eulogizer as Beth Archer Brombert.

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