Singular Style

The Toledo Museum of Art explores Manet's gift for portraiture.

Antonin Proust was a Paris dandy, and he knew it. Because of the oil painting that Edouard Manet completed of him in 1880, we know it, too. “Portrait of M. Antonin Proust” reveals the writer and politician to be quite an elegant and dapper fellow — the spectacular top hat, the dashing cane and gloves, the cocked head and jaunty position of an outwardly bent elbow. In fact, the image of an arm akimbo was a pose started by Renaissance portrait painters to signify a subject’s importance. Manet, who had studied the Old Masters, likewise used it in the painting to convey the suave, self-confident personality of a contemporary boulevardier.

“Manet was constantly dialoguing with the past while living very much in the present,” says Lawrence Nichols, the Toledo Museum of Art’s senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900.

In conjunction with MaryAnne Stevens, exhibition curator of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Nichols organized “Manet: Portraying Life,” on exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art through Jan. 1.

In his day, Manet’s paintings of Parisians in informal settings were considered revolutionary and sometimes scandalous, but his impact on the art world has been enormous. He is considered, Nichols explains, one of the greatest Western European painters and often credited with being the father of modern art.

Although countless exhibits have highlighted his work, “Manet: Portraying Life” is exceptional because it focuses on his portraits.

“This is the first time anywhere that a portraiture show has been done on Manet,” says Nichols. The exhibition features 40 paintings of the artist’s family and friends, as well as such political, literary and artistic luminaries as French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, novelist and playwright Emile Zola and the Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Intelligent, educated, and very well-connected, Manet was clearly no starving artist. He was born into an affluent, upper-class family in 1832. His father was a judge, his mother the daughter of a diplomat. Nichols explains that half of Manet’s paintings and drawings were portraits of one form or another. Although his straight portraiture reveals the distinctive identity of subjects such as boyhood friend Proust, Manet also had a genius for depicting the people he knew as actors placed in scenes of everyday life.

“He wanted to be a modern, to paint what he was living, feeling, experiencing,” says Nichols.

Comprised of works loaned by 25 museums and private collections from Budapest to Tokyo, “Manet: Portraying Life” truly is an ambitious international exhibition. Yet one of its early inspirations was the Proust painting, which the Toledo Museum of Art has owned since 1925. Purchased from a New York art dealer by TMA founder and benefactor Edward Drummond Libbey, the painting unquestionably attests to the glass-industry magnate’s eye for quality. It also underscores the significance of TMA’s collaboration with the Royal Academy in presenting the show.

“Although we’ve often lent paintings to the Royal Academy in the past, it’s the first time we’ve partnered,” says Nichols. “It just made sense for organizing this exhibit.”

In 2009, Nichols and Stevens began traveling to visit potential lenders. Arranging for “Manet: Portraying Life” required a lot of legwork, but the selected paintings are tantamount to a dazzling social history capturing the imagery of an era.

“Manet’s portraits routinely show what life was like for a certain class in the Paris of his day,” explains Nichols. “People are well-dressed, neat and clean, and reflect the social strata of the bourgeoisie.”

Among the works that visitors to the Toledo Museum of Art will see are two oil paintings Manet finished in 1871: “Interior at Arcachon” from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts; and “The Velocipede,” a rarely seen gem owned by a Paris collector. In the former painting, Manet depicts his wife, Suzanne, and her son, Léon Leenhoff, placidly enjoying leisure time in southwest coastal France.

In the latter image, Leenhoff rides a decidedly modern mechanical device — the first bicycle to be equipped with pedals.

Another riveting aspect of the exhibition is seeing many of Manet’s favorite models in different modalities: His alluring future sister-in-law, for example, is represented in four paintings, including “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets,” an image that also graces the cover of the show’s catalog.

“It’s a hot painting that makes one wonder if something was going on between the artist and his subject. The gaze is very provocative,” says Nichols, citing a color palette that includes a stunning array of blacks and pale flesh tones.

Manet unfailingly painted what he saw, never what others preferred to see, the curator explains. Although he knew the burgeoning group of Impressionists, the artist never exhibited with them. While they scorned acceptance by the Paris Salon, Manet valued its cachet. He did not paint sunlit water lilies. Instead, he maintained a repertoire that was complex and assertive.

“Manet was an individual, pure and simple,” reflects Nichols. “He never produced anything for the market. He painted what he wanted and when he wanted.

“This exhibit,” he adds, “holds fascinating discoveries for the public and art scholars alike.”

“Manet: Portraying Life”
Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St., Toledo 43697
Admission: $8 adults, $5 students and seniors