Once I got through Art History 101 (what a whirlwind), at the beginning of my second year at the College of Wooster I took a class in nineteenth century art (read: French) with the professor that turned me into an art history nut. Arn Lewis was a quiet and intense man whose passion for his subject viscerally came through. I don’t think I ever expected to be excited about any subject that wasn’t studio art or music (oboe, alto). And I remember thinking: finally, something I can sink my teeth into.
I was a copious note-taker. Not only did it help me stay awake in the dark classroom, but also it was clear to me that note-taking made the test-taking a whole lot easier. (Actually, I am rather nerdishly proud that I have never fallen asleep in an art history lecture.) We were exploring the oeuvre of French artist Edouard Manet one day and I was busily jotting something down when I looked up to see Bouquet of Lilacs (c. 1882) on the screen. This was my first jaw-dropping art history moment, which I have referred to several times in earlier posts.
Edouard Manet, who some think of as the father of Modernism, painted some magnificent paintings. (Please note I claim zero expertise in Manet.) In the fall of 1983, there was a blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was my “home” museum having grown up in the NY suburbs. All the biggies were there. The Balcony (1868–69) was the mascot, if you will. It was on the cover of the catalogue and was made into a poster that I had in my dorm room throughout college and graduate school. I honestly can't recall, and don't have the catalogue handy, to know if other key works were also in the exhibition. But some of his most important paintings include: Olympia (1863), Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), The Railway (1872–73), and A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882). It was my first blockbuster show, and at the time I had no idea museums and curating exhibitions were going to be my career (I’ll save the story of when that lightbulb went off for another post).
Manet died at fifty-one, a year after painting A Bar at the Folies Bergère. He had contracted syphilis in his forties and was in considerable pain in his final years. He suffered from jerky, uncontrolled body movements and had his left foot amputated eleven days before he died. In that last year, Manet painted Bouquet of Lilacs and other flowers and fruit as symbols of transience, a kind of vanitas. Apparently one of his close friends, Méry Laurent, brought him flowers every day, and Manet painted them against a plain background. One assumes it was to better focus on the fragile beauty of the blooms.
What made my jaw drop in that classroom in Ohio? Part of it, I’m sure, was the scale. It was really big up on that screen--it's 21 x 16 inches in reality. Part of it was because the flowers are set against a dark background in the painting, and in that dark classroom those white blossoms really popped. But I think what really got me was the way he captured the stems in the water and the glass. How did he paint the water? We’re sure the water level is halfway up, but the way he paints the stems in and out of the water are exactly the same but not. What the heck! As a would-be artist, all I could think was: no fair, you bastard!
Edouard Manet (1832–1883)
Bouquet of Lilacs, c. 1882
Oil on canvas
54 x 42 cm. (21 ¼ x 16 ½ in.)
Nationalgalerie | Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
© Photo: Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
The Balcony, 1868–69
Oil on canvas
170 x 124.5 cm. (67 x 49 in.)
Musée d'Orsay: Gustave Caillebotte Bequest, 1894
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.