Manet’s portraits: the artist on the knife-edge of photography

Manet’s portraiture, observes PHILIP HENSHER, is devoted to the image that is controlled not by the conventions of the form.

édouard manet Un Bar aux Folies Bergère

Manet was the last French painter to love black for a very long time. The museum habit of placing him among the Impressionists has a curious effect. In New York’s Metropolitan Museum, stepping from the interminable Renoir rooms into the Manet room produces a shock; stepping back produces another one, not quite in reverse. Renoir, who believed and said that black did not exist, that all shadows had a colour, apparently succeeded a painter who loved the knife-edge contrasts of black. The intense matadors of Manet give way to the smiling pastel matrons of Renoir; dramatic costumes, as if for a stage performance or a last appearance in the arena, are succeeded by a natural sincerity. Black disappeared after Manet, not to reappear until Matisse. Pleasingly, the aged Renoir lived to be deeply shocked by the black horizontal bar in Matisse’s Intérieur à Nice, now in Philadelphia.

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Image: Édouard Manet, Un Bar aux Folies Bergère (1881)

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