“Painting begins with Manet” is the proclamation that faces the entrance to a jam-packed Manet: Painting Life on a cold winter Saturday. The hype so often a prerequisite for top London exhibitions is evident even before we reach that stage; the queue for tickets stretches the whole length of the square at Burlington House. But is the hype correctly directed? Is this an exhibition which looks to the successes of Manet as an homage to him, or as a historical map of his achievements and of the role of painting in his contemporary Paris?

Split into 8 rooms –  The Artist and His Family, Music in the Tuileries Garden, Manet’s World, Manet’s Cultural Circle (I  and II), Manet’s Status Portraits, Manet’s Models and Victorine Meurent – we get a very clear idea of that it is that is meant by ‘Painting Life’: it is Manet’s life and not everyman’s. Born to a wealth Parisian family in 1832 and mixing with Paris’ elite later in life, Manet was, far from painting the lives of the proletariat, depicting his own surroundings and his own friends. Dedicating an entire room to “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” (1862) underlines the variety and number of Manet’s influential circle. Not only that, but it makes clear the influence that the painting of his wife’s heritage had upon his work. By painting a group portrait of many around him who shared his values, Manet is engaging with a 17th Century Dutch tradition, as well as mirroring Baudelaire’s belief that music is the highest form of art.

By painting such a clear image of those who surround the artist, the exhibition echoes Manet’s own reluctance to paint self-portraits. What we see here is what he saw and the way that he saw it. It’s extremely easy to forget (and just as important to remember) how rapidly that world was changing. Manet lived in a moment of transition; the time of Modernity. He was born just seven years before the invention of the first photographs (Daguerreotypes) and yet grew up in a culture which still observed the tradition of the Paris Salon. He lived in a Paris of change; from Second Republic to Third Republic, through Prussian Occupation; a Paris of modernity but which still held the Salon up as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. It was a world of contradictions, which was simultaneously clinging onto the past and running tirelessly into the future. What Manet did so expertly was to navigate and pioneer his way through this moment of transition into the full swing of modernity. He fused the genre painting with the portrait at the same time as marrying modernism and realism. He was echoing his contemporary surroundings in his work: his portraits coincided with the photographic portrait’s growing popularity, and the curator has placed a number of Cartes de Visite alongside Manet’s work to make this clearer.

And so, to see the exhibition as a retrospective of Manet’s work would be a mistake. If it were just an examination of his canon, then it would be missing certain very key pieces: Olympia is not here, for starters. Nor is the Dejeuner sur l’herbe (only a study hangs here). The sad thing about an exhibition of this type is that it does seem to be perceived by many of the gallery-goers as precisely this sort of retrospective. Manet is a well-known name, and so going to the exhibition at the RA has become a task to check off the list, while the Mariko Mori exhibition has been relegated to Burlington Gardens, around the corner.

What we do see is an impressive selection of Manet’s portraits, and particularly the blurred line between Manet’s portraits and the tradition of genre scenes, which is perfectly encapsulated in “The Luncheon” (1868). It is very effective in foregrounding the progress of Paris in the late 19th Century, and the changes in artistic trends (both photographically and in painting).

What this exhibition does is to map out the progress of modernity in late 19th Century Paris. As a history of modernising Paris, it is very successful; as an exhibition of Manet’s work, it is not.

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