You can Edouard Manet fine art reproduction oil paintings from Bohemian Fine Art
Thoroughly modern Manet
Forget what you know - everything great about contemporary art was invented in the 19th century, says Jonathan Jones.
I saw the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe in the National Gallery last Friday afternoon. The guard had opened the double doors at the bottom of the stairs to let me in to see the art gallery's unfinished exhibition Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century. In twilit rooms still scattered with packaging, curators were studying the hang, and critics tiptoed around. Suddenly I was alone, contemplating Edouard Manet's 1862 oil painting Music in the Tuileries Gardens.
The oil painting's brilliant surface is as bright as a mirror, in which you catch faces familiar and unfamiliar beneath top hats and bonnets. Men in black and women in silks, below a dark green canopy of foliage. This is Manet's first attempt to paint the passing spectacle of modern life according to the aesthetic theories of his friend, the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire; it includes Baudelaire's portrait in the crowd, and under his top hat he looks for all the world like a mole with a stocking over his face. Over to his right is a far more sinister, grey-faced phantom who sits in front of a tree and behind an upturned umbrella. I'm sure a prosaic account can be given of this face, but I knew, in the quiet and half-light, that whoever this is, it is also the spectre of Poe, who was found dying on the streets of
In the imaginations of French bohemians from the 1860s to 1890s it was this dead American writer, rather than any contemporary artist, who perfectly embodied the image of the creative personality as "rebel and martyr". Baudelaire translated Poe into French and wrote an essay that sees in him a martyr to capitalist philistine society: there are some creative personalities, he says, who bear the mark of fatality -"The blind angel of expiation has seized hold of them, and lashes them hard for the edification of others. In vain do their lives show them to have had talents, virtues, grace; society has a special kind of curse in reserve for them."
Poe died of alcoholism at the age of 40. Baudelaire made it to 46 before dying, already mute from a series of strokes. I like the fact that in addition to being a poet maudit, Baudelaire was an art critic maudit. In his famous essay The Painter of Modern Life, he summons the ghost of Poe to argue that an artist who wants to portray contemporary existence should imitate the character in Poe's story The Man of the Crowd and infiltrate the multitude.
The middle of the 19th century; nearly 150 years ago. Forget what you know. Forget the stale and unjustifiable notion that 19th-century art was tame and gentle, that the impressionists were "chocolate-box artists", that modernism began in 1900. The truth is that everything great about modern art - and, perhaps more significantly, everything about it that still lives - was invented in the undervalued 19th century. This exhibition is not a perfect record of that revolutionary age. But in its very crudity - it attempts to encompass changing ideas of art from the age of Joshua Reynolds to that of Picasso, an exercise that's bound to be a bit perfunctory - it smashes through the lazy, dead-eyed stupidities that either make us not look at 19th-century art or - more likely - make us feel a bit apologetic for the pleasure we find in it.
Be honest. Walk around any contemporary city. See the crowds in parks and squares, outside bars, walking by. The modern world has its own beauty. Now try and find it mirrored in art. Where do you look? There is really, still, only one art that has captured the look of modern city life and it is the painting of Manet and his successors - those assorted visionaries customarily labeled "impressionists" and "post-impressionists". Then again consider modern life from a more inward point of view: the sense of confusion in our own skins, of being disconnected from traditional patterns of community, of longing for meaning in a world where, as Karl Marx wrote, "all that is solid melts into air". What art captures that modern anxiety and loneliness? Go to the National Gallery's permanent collection and see Van Gogh's glorious and terrifying Sunflowers, his tobacco pouch left on a straw-covered chair. After this, and after Pisarro's The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, Seurat's working-class bathers and Monet's railway station in the same suite of rooms, you ought to be ready for this exhibition.
Rebels and Martyrs is best enjoyed as an argument. It suggests a way of looking at 19th-century art. I think it could have been done with more sensuality, more championing of truly great oil paintings, but it's always hard in a show that makes an argument to avoid the illustrative. Some really ugly, and worse, really boring images hang alongside some great ones. But then again, that's the 19th century for you. There probably hasn't ever been an age that was quite so self-conscious about art, so interested in it as an idea: the 19th century produced the greatest art criticism ever written - not just that of Baudelaire in Paris, but John Ruskin in England and the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt - and, even more strikingly, great novels about art. In what other period can you read a masterpiece of a novel - L'Oeuvre - by a world-class novelist, Emile Zola, whose tragic hero is a synthesis of the author's friends Manet and Cézanne?
Nineteenth-century literary ideas about art are so fervent they sometimes stunt the art itself. There is an entire room of oil paintings here that can be called "literary" in the bad sense - pictures that try to do the work of a historical novel. The best, with its disturbing precision and the grotesque flaccid beard of the dying genius, is Ingres's painting The Death of Leonardo da Vinci. Near it hangs Henry Wallis's sensational image of the 18th-century poet Chatterton dead by his own hand, and Delacroix's Tasso in the Hospital of St Anne, depicting the madness of the 16th-century Italian poet, and two depictions of the childhood of Giotto.
This does seem like a lot of history paintings, but the exhibition is only telling it like it was. In reality, there are tons of surviving oil paintings of this type - whole museums full of 19th-century pictures of such subjects as the young Raphael visiting Leonardo, or the boyhood of Titian, or - a favorite with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood - Dante and Beatrice. The 19th century invented scientific history, the historical novel and the most historicist of all art forms, grand opera. Why not the historical picture? To get into the minds of the first modern artists you need to follow them into this dusty realm.
The best document of the mind of a founder of modern art - probably the best document of any artist's mind - is the heart-stopping sequence of letters written to his brother Theo by Vincent van Gogh. One of the most amazing things when you encounter a great artist this closely - for Vincent tries to describe every permutation of his thinking, every flutter of his unguarded soul to Theo - is his execrable taste. Sometimes he enthuses about an artist such as Courbet or Delacroix. But a lot of the time he shows excessive respect for painters not worth his little toe. And how he relies on those history scenes, the small change of bourgeois culture: "Not just my pictures but I myself have become especially haggard of late," he writes in July 1888 while waiting in
for his hero Gauguin to come, "almost like Hugo van der Goes in the painting by Emile Wauters."
Hugo van der Goes was a 15th-century painter who went mad and was incarcerated in a monastery; Van Gogh identifies with him because he has seen the story depicted in a painting that, to us, looks dead but meant a lot to its contemporaries. Wauters' painting would have fitted perfectly in this show.
Essentially, what the exhibition invites you to do is enter for a moment the mental universe of the first avant garde - and like any lived culture it would have been filled with rubbish and cliches alongside the flashes of genius. Van Gogh learned as much from the myth of the mad artist portrayed by Wauters as he did from the bohemian artists he met in
. His is a life nurtured on images, on received ideas. When Gauguin finally joined him in
, their anguished and ultimately violent relationship was lightened by a nice day out: they went to
to see the art collection of the well-known patron Alfred Bruyas. "There are lots of portraits of Bruyas by Delacroix, Ricard, Courbet," he wrote to Theo. "Bruyas was a benefactor of artists, and I shall say no more to you than that. In the portrait by Delacroix he is a gentleman with a beard and red hair, who bears an amazing resemblance to you and me."
You can see for yourself if Alfred Bruyas really looked like Van Gogh. The show's absolute pearl has been lent by the Musée Fabre in
; it is Gustave Courbet's dreamlike 1854 painting The Meeting ("Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!"). The redheaded Bruyas, wearing a green jacket, removes his cap while his servant bows, and even their dog stands attentively; they are on an open road in the countryside, greeting a man with a long, pointy beard sticking straight out, a staff in his hand and a pack on his back whose painting materials, including sharp staves, look more like mountaineering equipment. This man is an adventurer on the open road; in the distance, a covered wagon drives away, leaving him here in the dusty countryside under a huge blue-and-white, nondescript sky. The traveler is Courbet himself, but there's something truly mythic and phantasmagorical about his meeting with his patron - even though Courbet's style is a meticulous realism. He based the image on a popular woodcut of the "wandering Jew", portraying himself as this eternal wanderer. And the journey he's walking so heroically, in 1854, will be taken up by artists who increasingly cast themselves as wanderers, repudiating the dead world of the bourgeois for distant, mysterious places of the imagination.
It is touching that of all artists, it should have been Van Gogh and Gauguin who made the trek to the provincial museum in
and saw Courbet's Meeting in 1888. Van Gogh had wanted to become a missionary; he was influenced by The Pilgrim's Progress; he routinely walked tremendous distances and went south where he finally found his triumph and martyrdom. Gauguin was to go still further - to die on a
island. Gauguin's melancholic homage to the Courbet painting, called Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin, hangs here.
One of the things this show illuminates is the persistence of Romantic vision. It begins with the Romantic revolt in the late 18th century; with Fuseli and Barry portraying themselves as desperate men, so different from the nearby self-portrait of that deserved aunt sally, Sir Joshua Reynolds, looking as pompous today as he did when William Blake scribbled insults all over a copy of his Discourses on Art. Obviously, Romanticism is a big subject, and a cursory trip through the show might leave you thinking that it then moves on to the idea of the artist as decadent "dandy", and from there to the symbolist identification with Christ. In reality, Rebels and Martyrs never leaves Romanticism behind because the 19th century didn't - and nor have we. The idea of the artist as observer of modern life, promoted by Baudelaire and captured here in Fantin-Latour's stunning portrait of Manet, was - as Baudelaire expressed and lived it - a mad, extreme, passionate longing, not a cool stance. It is as a man who is not controlled at all that Baudelaire advocates control, and it is the tragedy and pathos of an indifferent world that keeps jabbing though Manet's beer-foam-and-satin surfaces.
We still live in the world the 19th century made. We still inhabit the capitalist and bourgeois age, although we are much better at deluding ourselves about this tragicomic fact than Baudelaire was when he cynically addressed his art criticism "to the Bourgeois".
Hypocrite reader! My double! Are we so far from the 19th century that we can sceptically turn aside from its great passionate myths of art as suffering and redemption? One of the last images in the exhibition is James Ensor's poster for an exhibition of his symbolist images in
in 1898. The artist stands in a crumpled suit and unkempt hair surrounded by his familiar demons - orange, blue and pink devils, one of them with wings and a face covered in eyes, others who are just blobs, but all of these monsters of the imagination apparently old friends of the artist; his ragged bohemian company. The lithograph is funny, and it is horrible. The condition of the artist it portrays is that of a hysterical prophet, free from all social restraint and keeping company with religious phantoms. If you told me it was a contemporary work not only would I believe you, I'd be excited to see an image that's so true to our time.
Nineteenth-century art has such an invincible hold on us because we are still in confused rebellion against a social order that seems more permanent now than it did in the age of Manet and Marx. The real ghosts in Manet's