The Royal Academy of Arts, in an effort to make amends for 19th century artist Edouard Manet’s portraits and other works not having been explored in exhibition form before, had organized the first ever retrospective devoted to his portraiture in an exhibition that took place from 26 January to 14 April 2013. The exhibition spanned Manet’s entire career assembling works from across Europe, USA and Asia. The works of Manet that have been exhibited are his paintings of his family, friends and the literary, political and artistic figures of the day, which had never been explored in exhibition form before. About 50 works that portray the key pictures and sitters of this enigmatic, at times controversial and forward thinking painting pioneer were exhibited in the singularly important exhibition, Manet: Portraying of Life.
His portraits give life not only to his subjects but also to Parisian society of the day. Among the works are portraits of Manet’s most frequent sitter, his wife Suzanne Leenhoff, notable persons of the period Antonin Proust, Émile Zola and Stephane Mallarmé, and scenes of everyday life that reveal his forward thinking and modern outlook to portraiture.
The exhibition, ‘Manet: Portraying Life’ was organized in collaboration with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and it was curated by MaryAnne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs, Royal Academy of Arts and Dr Larry Nichols, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
Visitors at the exhibition are able to realize that all of Manet’s portraiture seems to be straightforward although his pictures are portraits as all the figures in them are representing life. He had always admitted that as a realist follower of Courbet, he could not do anything without a model although he used to place portraits of real people against backdrops or settings that were made in his studio. As such, the dividing line between what a true portrait should be and what is history or genre painting becomes blurred at times. This line reaches the core of Manet’s modernity and was explored in all its complexity in the ground-breaking exhibition at the Royal Academy. In other pictures, Manet uses portraits in the way theatre directors use actors.