Mr. Lawrence W. Nichols is the William Hutton senior curator, European and American painting and sculpture before 1900 at the Toledo Museum of Art where the major exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life is being presented. Mr. Nichols planned and organized this exhibit of the work of Édouard Manet (1832-1883), along with MaryAnne Stevens, exhibition curator at the London Royal Academy of Arts. Mr. Nichols joined CLR for a conversation about this landmark exhibit, the first to focus on Manet’s portrait paintings.
CLR: People are fascinated with the “back story” of great films, plays and books. Art exhibitions have their own behind-the-scenes lives, as well. Would you share some insights about how the Toledo Museum of Art came to partner with the Royal Academy to mount this great exhibit of portraits by Édouard Manet?
LWN: In a way, Manet: Portraying Life can be traced to the early years of the Toledo Museum of Art. Edward Drummond Libby, who founded the museum in 1901, purchased a portrait by Manet in 1924, Portrait of Antonin Proust. I was intrigued by the fact that another very different work by Manet, a restaurant scene, was exhibited at the same salon in 1880. This painting is entitled Chez le Père Lathuille – En Plein Air, from the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai. It was my aim to unite these two marvelous canvases.
Manet’s Antonin Proust is a formal portrait of his long-time friend, who by-the way was no relation to Marcel Proust. It is a three-quarters length view and Manet put a lot of effort into it. Chez le Père Lathuille shows a middle-aged woman meeting a younger man in an eyebrow-raising manner. It’s what we would call a genre painting. But Manet treated genre painting in such a way that it illuminated the society that he and Antonin Proust lived in. The idea formed in my mind that these two works could serve as the basis for a very enlightening exhibition on Manet and his world.
How did the Royal Academy in London become involved with your plans?
As I pursued my research into Manet, I discovered that MaryAnne Stevens of the Royal Academy was also planning an exhibit devoted to Manet. That was in 2008 and we decided to work together on a joint exhibition. The two of us showed-up on the doorstep of museums, world-wide, to explain our plans. We hoped that these institutions would lend the portraits by Manet that would enable us to explore this aspect of his work. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris was particularly helpful, lending us several key works. They were so enthused, in fact, that for a time it seemed that they might present the exhibit too, making it a three-venue show. But there were already scheduled exhibits at their museum that prevented them from having the necessary space to present the show.
Were there any notable difficulties in arranging for works to be loaned?
It took four years to secure the loan of Chez le Père Lathuille. The museum in Tournai, Belgium, which owns it, was one of the first that we visited in 2008. But it was not until September 2012, less than a month before the exhibit was set to open here in Toledo, that we finally secured their agreement to send the painting. It took a lot of delicate and persistent negotiation, but sometime you just have to put the pedal to the metal to get the job done.
How did you and Ms. Stevens organize the exhibition?
First of all, Manet: Portraying Life is not a full-scale retrospective of Manet’s artistic career like the great 1983 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. To focus on the portraits, we decided on a thematic arrangement by the types of people Manet painted: family members, fellow artists, men of letters like Emile Zola, status portraits of important people in French society and people in the art scene like the Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen.
How did you manage to correlate the genre paintings that you mentioned earlier with these formal portraits?
The genre paintings, as I mentioned, inform the authenticity of Manet’s portraits. They are scenes of modern-day Paris during the 1870′s. In many cases, we actually know the names of the people in them whom Manet painted.
There is a very familiar face in one of Manet’s genre paintings, The Railway, isn’t there?
It is Victorine Meurent, Manet’s most famous model. She posed wearing only a neckband in Olympia, which caused such a scandal at the Salon of 1863. Here she is dressed in the height of fashion in 1873. She appears with a little girl, who may have been the daughter of a friend. The little girl is watching a cloud of steam being emitted from a train at the Gare Saint-Lazare station. Manet’s studio, where this was painted, was located nearby to the train station.
Would you say that The Railway is, in a way, a portrait of the age in which Manet lived?
In some ways it is, but it is also a very enigmatic painting. We have no idea of the intended adult-child relationship here. Was Manet depicting a mother-daughter pair or a nanny and child? We just don’t know. The inter-related subjects of artist intention and audience reception are points of great fascination to me. In this case, we still don’t know what Manet was driving at in this picture. We’re not even sure if people at the time were aware that the woman gazing at them was Victorine Meurent.
What about Manet’s relationship with two other women he painted, Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès?
Manet painted full-length portraits of these women, both of them on display in our exhibition. Berthe Morisot was a very close friend, who later married Manet’s brother. In addition to this big portrait, Manet also painted her in a smaller work where she is looking directly at him. This portrait, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, clearly shows that there was an emotional bond between them. There’s a lot going on in that gaze between Berthe and Édouard!
As for the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, it’s an unusual picture. It may be more of an allegory of the art of painting, in fact, than a portrait. Eva Gonzalès is wearing a flowing, white gown, not what you would expect her to wear while painting. Nor is she really looking at the canvas that she is working on. She is glancing away, toward Manet who is painting her. In a way, her pose is more suggestive of Manet’s presence than of herself in the act of painting.
There is, however, nothing in the historical record to suggest that she and Manet ever carried on an affair. And if there was a rivalry between her and Berthe Morisot for Manet’s esteem, it is noteworthy that Morisot called the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès the best painting that Manet ever did.
No great painter like Édouard Manet will ever exhaust our fascination. But what areas of Manet scholarship call for further study and a future exhibition?
There is more to be sorted out with Manet’s relationship to photography. Manet was born in 1832, seven years before the first Daguerreotype photo was taken. He grew up with an expanding awareness of photography. We know that he collected carte de visite photo prints, that were sometimes used as a form of business card in the 1870’s and 80’s. And we know in at least one instance that Manet asked his sitter for her photo to help him when he painted her portrait. There is evidence that he may have used a photograph when he painted Antonin Proust. But it’s worth noting that he used seven canvases and many sittings before he completed Proust’s portrait. Manet was a very exacting painter.
The main thing is to keep our focus on Manet’s paintings. He is often called the “Father of Impressionism.” But he did not exhibit his paintings at the Impressionist salons. He was friends with them and as our exhibit shows, he painted with them. We have a portrait he did of Claude Monet’s family resting in a garden. But Manet did not want to be called an Impressionist.
Manet was a very independent artist. We need to keep studying his paintings and learning directly from them. As Manet said himself, “Art needs to be seen.”
Manet: Portraying Life October 7, 2012 – January 1, 2013, The Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, OH