Manet: Portraying Life, Royal Academy 9.2.13

Nowhere but in Manet’s oeuvre is the polarity more marked between artworks that have been produced from personal urgency and passion, and those dutiful commissions painted simply to return bread-and-butter money.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Manet: Portraying Life, by focusing on portraits, emerges successfully from the shadow of the behemoth retrospective held at the Musée D’Orsay in 2011; that institution clings to its Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’Herbe fiercely as its bastions of Impressionist importance, forcing this alternative approach. The display here of lesser known works presents some under-appreciated gems, but also some paintings that are startlingly lacklustre – painfully incompetent in places – primarily revealed in the quality of brushwork. Lightning speed application displays nakedly the enormous spectrum between the inspired, bold, risk-taking strokes, to the flabby and impatient canvas-filling daubs.

The arrangement of rooms further emphasises the undulating degree of quality by categorising the sitters – into family portraits or ones of society and wealth for example – avoiding a chronological layout. The glaring inadequacies of some portraits are therefore not subsumed within the question of the artist’s technical development throughout the progression of his career.

The artist’s wife depicted in Mme Manet in the Conservatory (1879) is typical in demonstrating his intense understanding of the power of the sitter’s gaze, with much of the surrounding articles secondary – even incidental – the details glossed over impatiently. The three-quarter profile here is intently rendered; brushstrokes quick and thick, though keen to compose the solid wholeness of the face, the tangible veneer of the pale skin flushed with pink blush, rather than an impression of one, as is evident in the remaining components of the piece. Indeed, everything from the hands folded in her lap to the expansive green foliage bulking out the frame are barely represented, thin and hastily swiped using broad strokes. That the paint in these areas is as thin as a watercolour wash is indicative of their purpose to fill out the frame as economically as can be got away with. For Manet, the portrait resonates from that invisible beam of focus emanating from his wife’s eyes; the rest is an unfortunate necessity, its presence demanded by the duty of representational painting.

The paramount status of the gaze above all else is perhaps most evident in Berthe Morisot in Mourning (1874), completed two weeks after her father’s death. Such a brief lapse of time suggests Manet’s urgency to capture this intense, emotionally wracked face, to seize the chance before the grief diminished. One cannot help but feel the reluctance in Morisot’s presence, sitting not in a begrudging manner, but almost in a mode of grief-induced self-flagellation as her contorted face is rendered in daringly chunky, deliberately heavy blows. The palate, limited to stark extremes of black mourning encasing her emaciated, pale face emphasises the effect. The portrait is a result of Manet’s visual need to capture a gruelling, raw emotion; as such he gladly has little use for the decorational padding of foliage or scenery and the background remains an unforgiving uniform hue.

Contrast this with The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (1865). Laboured and leaden, the usually nimble application of paint is overly worked and forced. A commission from the fashionable actor, this represents Manet at his most uninterested, bearing little emotional connection to the sitter; the only intensity of glare resonates not from the eyes but from the actor’s professional composure; thereby naturally rendering it to be false. Tellingly, Rouvière complained that it did not capture his likeness, and indeed it looks as if it was a real struggle to conjure the prescriptive features accurately from the visage’s lumpen white matter. Add to this an awkward pose; the right hand’s index finger neither supporting its drapery nor pointing decidedly to the floor, and an alarming disparity of balance: the right leg that – by its rigidity – denotes that which carries the bodyweight is positioned disturbingly far from the centre of balance along the spine. One feels Manet couldn’t get the commission done and cheque cashed quickly enough.

Such is the artist’s understanding of what communicates best a sitter’s purpose and stature via the outward appearance of the face, his impatience is doubly ominous throughout the ‘filler’ details making up the rest of the pictorial space. It is the degree of discipline he chooses to apply to his brushwork that reveals most clearly which works have his heart, and those with which he simply regards as a chore; many of the works on show have captions stating ‘Not shown during the artist’s lifetime’, to which one cannot help thinking: “With good reason”