The Shifting Styles of Edouard Manet's Art

The Shifting Styles of Edouard Manet's Art
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  • 0:01 Edouard Manet
  • 0:31 Manet the Realist
  • 2:39 Manet the Impressionist
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the artistic styles of Edouard Manet and the popular artistic styles of the late 19th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Edouard Manet

I swear some people just cannot make up their minds. You'd think something like picking your painting style would be easy, but no, some people have to go and switch styles, transforming the possibilities of the medium and forcing us to question the very essence of 19th-century painting. And by some people, I mean Edouard Manet, a 19th-century French painter whose variations on accepted styles laid some of the foundations of modern art. You know, that guy.

Manet the Realist

When Edouard Manet first appeared on the art scene, he was working primarily in the style of realism. Realist artists stressed that the only things that could truly be known, the only things that were real, were those that the artist could personally experience. Thus, realism as a style focused on contemporary experiences of everyday life, from working peasants to rainy streets. No historical or mythological subjects here. Just the average, daily, and visible, elevated to the highest level of appreciation through the use of paint and canvas.

Few other artists demonstrated realist principles as well as Manet. He went beyond simply depicting daily scenes to using this form as a way to critique the history of art. How did he do this? Well, check out this piece, considered one of his masterpieces:

Luncheon on the Grass
Manet

This is Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, or Luncheon on the Grass, painted in 1863. In this scene, a nude woman is depicted with two gentlemen in a park, while a third woman washes or plays in the stream. It is realist in the modern and truthful nature of it; the men are in modern fashions and with a prostitute who is more naturally represented than idealized. Also, these are all real people known to Manet.

But look at these other two paintings, both completed by Venetian masters of the Italian Renaissance in the early 1500s:

Italian Renaissance Paintings
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Notice any similarities? The pastoral scene, the somewhat arbitrary appearance of female nudes, the defiant gaze of the woman directed at the viewer. This work defined the realist notion in recreating the purpose of art by repurposing idyllic, traditional themes in a modern, realist sense.

However, that was not the only interesting thing about this painting. Notice the lack of depth in some areas. There is almost a flatness, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints which Manet strove to emulate. The broad brush strokes of the background clash with the details of the objects in the foreground. There is simultaneously a sense of stillness, and a sense of the fleeting moment. The focus is on light, not the form or environment, and he strove to capture the essence of light in the moment.

Manet the Impressionist

A focus on the moment? The emphasis of light over form? If you know anything about art history, those ideas will sound familiar. But not as a realist principle. Manet's style bridged the genres of realism and Impressionism, the late 19th-century French style that strove to capture the transitory, the momentary, and the effects of light. Impressionists sought to capture the moment, but not in the sense that we often think. Rather than capturing a moment as a fixed point in time the way realists did, the idea was to capture the essence of a moment - elusive, impermanent, and changing.

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