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Something you should see… Manet: Portraying Life at Royal Academy of Arts

Manet at Royal Academy of Arts

Edouard Manet is probably best known for his highly controversial painting Olympia, the scandalously and decidedly naked Parisian prostituée with her arresting gaze. But the woman depicted in Olympia is just one of a whole host of models who sat for the French nineteenth-century painter. This month, the Royal Academy of Art is putting on the first ever exhibition dedicated to Manet’s portraiture – and astonishingly (given the extensive curatorial coverage of the Impressionists) this has never been done before.

Manet at Royal Academy of Arts

Manet is recognised as the pioneer of the anti-academic style of the 1860s and he is widely celebrated for his paintings’ dialectical reflection on the conditions of industrial modernity. However, although Manet’s work is today the subject of a blockbuster exhibition, it was not always so well-received. Throughout his three decade-long career (cut short by his sudden death at 51) the artist endured repeated rejections from gallerists and an onslaught of damning reviews by prominent critics. Many works now considered masterpieces were then derided as tasteless and vulgar. His sitters – rich young girls and their governesses, fellow artists, friends and family – are painted neither idealistically nor satirically, but as they might appear: in sunlit parks and in harbours, in bars and on the streets. Each gazes directly out to us. Manet instigated a much more intense relationship between sitter and beholder than that which had been previously attempted or achieved in painting. But the paintings’ lack of finesse repelled his critics who favoured the glossy, impenetrable surfaces of the work of some of Manet’s more commercially successful contemporaries.

Manet at Royal Academy of Arts

Nonetheless, with the support of his circle of literary and artistic friends, Manet persevered. Any struggling artists or students today who are going against the grain with projects that break the mould or unfashionably question the status quo should look to Manet. His is a success story in the face of critical adversity, and all with a little help from his friends. (Words: Florence Ritter) 

Manet: Portraying Life runs until 14th April. For more info, visit:

A Date for the Diary:
Manet is most commonly identified with the origins of Modernism and with the beginnings of Impressionism, but has also had a considerable impact on contemporary photographic portraits. Catch seminal photographer Rineke Dijkstra discuss his work in her talk on 8th March at the RA.

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