From: Bohemian Fine Art reproduction paintings
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE &nb sp; April 2006
Manet The Judgement of Paris
In 1865, no painter in France was more reviled than the 33-year-old Edouard Manet. The critics compared his oil painting brushwork to the action of a floor mop and judged his infamous Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, which features a naked woman picnicking with two clothed dandies, "a shameful open sore".
The public laughed at anything he hung on the wall. Accustomed to such abuse, he was understandably perplexed by the compliments his canvases received at the opening of the Paris Salon that year, and more mystified when people referred to his oil paintings as seascapes. In his customary top hat and frock coat, carrying his habitual walking stick, he went to investigate Room M, the gallery alphabetically assigned to him, where he found the source of confusion: "Who is this Monet," he exclaimed, "whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?"
He need not have worried. After all, 1865 was the year that the Salon, and the world at large, first encountered Olympia, his 1.8-metre-long oil painting of a Parisian prostitute. In The Judgment of Paris, Ross King describes Olympia as "easily the most notorious oil painting of the nineteenth century", placing it at the centre of his fluent account of the years that ushered in the age of Impressionism. With the solid craftsmanship that characterised his previous two popu­lar histories, Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, King's new book impressively synthesizes research on the culture, politics and personalities of an era that was anything but uncomplicated.
Contemporary responses to Olympia illustrate the contradictions of Paris on the verge of modernity. Critics called Manet' s nude "grotesque" and "stupid", a "female gorilla" engaged in a lewd act that "cries out for examination by the inspectors of public health". And the populace? "Nothing can convey the visitors' initial astonishment, then their anger or fear", noted one journalist. When guards posted in front of the oil painting failed to control the daily hordes, the painting was elevated to the ceiling where, another reporter noted, "you scarcely knew whether you were looking at a parcel of nude flesh or a bundle of laundry".
Yet prostitution was legal in Paris at the time (Napoleon III hoped it would distract his subjects from deposing him). From our point of view, the moral outrage over Manet's oil painting seems hypocritical, if not utterly inexplicable. To address this conundrum, King shrewdly introduces another artist from Room M into his story: The redoubtable Ernest Meissonier.
In 1865, Meissonier's critical acclaim was exceeded only by his celebrity, which made him one of the most famous men in France. His oil paintings inspired international bidding wars, bringing-the highest prices obtained by any living artist.
They were also among the most laboured over in history: While the nostalgic portraits of old-fashioned musketeers, on which he made his fortune, might be completed in less than a year, his 2.4-metre-long depiction of the 1807 Battle of Friedland took more than a decade. For that masterpiece, the artist's obsessive quest to capture the true gait of a horse led him to build a railroad track on his estate, along which he could be pushed by servants while he furiously sketched an adjacent stallion at full gallop.
To eyes accustomed to such meticulousness (which some connoisseurs enjoyed with a magnifying glass), Manet's broad strokes and bold contrasts were a visual assault. More importantly, as King notes, conventional wisdom held that "the teaching of moral lessons was ... the whole point of a work of art".
Meissonier's depiction of a triumphant Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland inspired patriotism. But what could one learn from the matter-of-fact depiction of a working prostitute? To salon-goers, Manet's oil painting resembled pornography. Indeed, most pornographic pictures were illegally peddled, nudes; photographic studies for artists. And here was Olympia, painted with the flatness characteristic of contemporary indoor photography, posed like Titian's Venus. If the oil painting had any lesson to teach, it was that the classic nudes exalted by art connoisseurs for their purity and virtue could also be seen as prurient.
But if Olympia threw into doubt the era's idea of artistic enterprise, it also suggested an alterna­tive. The oil painting's matter-of-factness showed that art need not be engineered to illustrate a value system in the old - fashioned way of allegory. The oil painter could be merely an observer, a reporter rather than a pundit.
While Monet, Cezanne and the other Impressionists who came in Manet's wake pursued the potential of unfiltered observation in their landscapes by simply painting the effects of light on the eye, half a century had to pass before the Dada movement made the aesthetic collaboration between artist and observer a full partnership: Most famously, the "ready-made" objects of Marcel Duchamp - a snow shovel, a wine rack, a urinal - were just hardware unless a viewer chose to see them otherwise. The viewer brought meaning to the work, and if the meaning was upsetting or disturbing or subversive, the viewer bore partial responsibility.
King isn't much interested in the broader implications of Manet's art, but he does provide a sound word of caution. Comparing 19th-century nostalgia for Meissonier's musketeers to our own nostalgia for the Impressionists' 19th-century Paris, he observes that "the painters of modern life created, in the end, the same consoling visions of the past".
Today, ensconced in the Louvre, Olympia is but an artifact, a stunning souvenir. Manet's true legacy, as always, is to be found, oil paint still fresh, in studio and salon.
You can buy Eduoard Manet handpainted reproduction art from Bohemian Fine Art at www.bohemianfineart.com