"The perfect subject for a biography . . . Meyers knows how to select his details . . . and arrange them into a well-paced narrative." -THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
"[Meyers] mounts a persuasive defense of Maugham's art." -THE NEW YORKER
Impressionist Quartet draws us into the inner lives of a core group of mid-nineteenth-century artists-Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Berthe Morisot-known, collectively, as the "Impressionists." Derided by critics, sneered at by contemporaries, their work sold for pittances. They were either marginalized or dismissed altogether by the French art
Impressionist Quartet draws us into the inner lives of a core group of mid-nineteenth-century artists-Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Berthe Morisot-known, collectively, as the "Impressionists." Derided by critics, sneered at by contemporaries, their work sold for pittances. They were either marginalized or dismissed altogether by the French art establishment. And, to some degree, their iconic works have eclipsed them.
Portraying them as individuals and as fellow conspirators in a new way of seeing and representing the world, Jeffrey Meyers brings to life this most popular and influential group of painters in the entire history of art. The result is an accessible and wonderfully illuminating book that offers readers a fresh way of looking at these artists and the priceless, timeless masterpieces they created.
"[Meyers] mounts a persuasive defense of Maugham's art." -THE NEW YORKER
~ EDOUARD MANET, the notorious creator of sexually daring paintings, was beloved by his friends and despised by the critics and the public. In the 1860s, when he began his career, he was handsome, charming and always fashionably dressed in his carefully tailored jacket, light-colored trousers and tall, wide-brimmed hat. Burning to succeed, and sure that he knew the direction painting should go, he worked with models in his studio, met friends in the Louvre and in private galleries, talked art and politics in the Paris salons and cafés. The crusading novelist Emile Zola, an early defender of his art, noted his "keen, intelligent eyes, [his] restless mouth turning ironic now and again; the whole of his expressive, irregular face has an indefinable finesse and vigor about it." Armand Silvestre, a contemporary critic, described Manet's appealing character and caustic wit. He was "a kind of dandy. Blond, with a sparse, narrow beard which was forked at the end, he had in the extraordinary vivacity of his gaze, in the mocking expression on his lips-his mouth was narrow-lipped, his teeth irregular and uneven-a very strong dose of the Parisian street urchin. Although very generous, and very good-hearted, he was deliberately ironic in conversation, and often cruel. He had a marvelous command of the annihilating and devastating phrase."
Antonin Proust, his faithful friend since childhood, emphasized Manet's courtly manners. He was of "medium height and muscular build. He had a lithe charm which was enhanced by the elegant swagger of his walk. No matter how much he exaggerated his gait or affected the drawl of the Parisian urchin, he was never in the least vulgar. One was conscious of his breeding." Manet, easily astonished and easily amused, had a character as dazzling as his appearance. Despite his sharp tongue, nervous outbursts and fits of depression, he impressed distinguished friends like Baudelaire and Mallarmé. He told Zola that "he adored society and discovered secret pleasures in the perfumes and brilliant delights of evening parties."1 Théodore Duret, who met Manet in Madrid in 1865 and became his friend, summed him up as essentially "a man of the world, refined, courteous, polished...fond of frequenting salons, where he was remarked and admired for his verve and his flashing wit."
The art dealer René Gimpel suggested his physical charm, remembering how the very smoothness of "his beard, well kept, brushed, curled, soft and caressing, [was] almost uniquely suitable for love." The journalist Paul Alexis defined the sensitivity and responsiveness that made so many women fall in love with him. Manet was "one of the five or six men of present-day Parisian society who still know how to talk to a woman. The rest of us...are too bitter, too distracted, too deep in our obsessions: our forced gallantries make us resemble bears dancing the polka."
One story synthesizes Manet's delightful personality and delicate wit. When a collector bought his Bunch of Asparagus and was so pleased with the painting that he paid an additional 200 francs, Manet painted another still life, of a single asparagus spear, and sent it along with a note that read: "There was one missing from your bunch."2 Manet's social graces and artistic genius attracted many followers. He would need all his courage and self-confidence, all the loyalty and support of family and friends, to face years of official rejection, critical hostility and public neglect.
AS A CHILD Edouard showed little sign of the academic talent so prized in France. Intended by his father to be a lawyer, he studied first at the Institut Poiloup and then-from the age of twelve to sixteen-at the Collège Rollin. "'This child is feeble,' the headmaster noted on Edouard's report card, 'but he shows zeal, and we hope he will do well.'" Here he met his future biographer, Antonin Proust, who later described Manet's boredom and misery in that oppressively grim atmosphere. The Collège, at one time a girls' reform school, had become a typically austere school for boys:
[There was] an ill-lit, prison like room, stinking of smoky lamps in the evening, furnished in the most primitive manner with narrow, rough benches, screwed so close to desks that they crushed your chest. We were packed in there like sardines. There was nothing on the walls, not even a map....
The only lesson which interested him at college, apart from gymnastics and the drawing lessons which he took from time to time, was history.
A few years later his reports had marginally improved, from "feeble" to "distracted," "slightly frivolous" and "not very studious." Relying on his own memories, Proust declared that "Edouard was as happy at home as he was unhappy at the Collège Rollin,"3 but this was not true.
Manet "came from one of those austerely high-minded and pious families," the art critic John Richardson observed, "which traditionally provided the French state with the most eminent of its public servants." They were also, as Baudelaire wrote (with some exaggeration) of his own parents, "idiots or maniacs, in grand apartments, all of them victims of terrible passions." Manet's ancestors had made money, bought land, and established solid positions in the learned professions and in upper-class society. His father Auguste (born in 1797) was a supervisor of personnel in the Ministry of Justice, where he gathered files on prospective judges, and rose rapidly through the administrative ranks to become a judge in the civil court. He sat on the bench with two other judges to hear "cases that included contested wills, paternity suits, legal separations, negligence charges, and copyright violations." On his mother's side Manet had some connections with Napoleonic royalty. His maternal grandfather, Joseph Fournier, a successful merchant in Sweden, had helped Napoleon's marshal Jean Bernadotte to become crown prince and then King Charles XIV of Sweden. Bernadotte became godfather to Manet's mother, Eugénie Désirée, who was born in Gothenburg in 1811 and married Auguste Manet in 1831.
Auguste's salary and his wife's dowry, his investments and inherited property in Gennevilliers (on the Seine, north of Paris) provided a substantial income and a comfortable home. One critic called Auguste "a man of duty, sternly honest, unflaggingly virtuous. He was enormously self-righteous,"4 and had solidly bourgeois ambitions for his three sons. Edouard, the oldest, was born in Paris on January 23, 1832, followed by his brothers Eugène in 1833 and Gustave in 1835. The teenage Manet was unhappy at school and at home, where his father's disappointment in his son caused considerable friction. Fortunately, Edouard's uncle and neighbor, the artillery captain Edmond Fournier, encouraged his nephew's talent for drawing, took him to the Louvre on Sundays and gave him his first informal lessons in the history of art.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Meyers
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Jeffrey Meyers is the author of numerous books on literature, film, and art, including biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham. He lives in Berkeley, California..
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