‘Manet – Portraying Life’ at The Royal Academy

Edouard Manet ‘The Railway’ 1873

I have to be honest, I don’t really know what to make of this exhibition.  It’s definitely a proper ‘blockbuster’ show: a ‘big’ name, internet overload when booking online, a long queue outside, and crowds inside.  There’s an academic thrust to the curating, an examination of Manet’s approach to portraits, to look at whether he was painting a modern scene in which people featured, or whether he was interested in making specific portraits of known subjects.  Manet was at the centre of a wide social circle of artists, writers and thinkers in Paris, so was able to paint many of the cultural movers and shakers of his day.

I found all of this interesting.  What I found puzzling, however, from the 50 or so paintings which form this exhibition, was that if these were the only Manet’s works I had ever seen, I would seriously wonder whether he was any good at it, as there are some fairly awful canvases on display.  Several of the paintings are described as ‘never exhibited on his lifetime’, and that did make me wonder if there might be a very good reason for that.  The exhibition leaflet attempts to make a virtue of the various degrees of completion of the works in the show, some are polished and detailed, while others are more impressionistic and relaxed, and some look as if they were simply abandoned.

There are some beautiful paintings showing Manet’s skill with paint and the combinations of tones and colours, but he doesn’t appear to  be interested in any sort of psychological insight into his subjects, instead he surrounds them with images of tools of their trade or cultural interests.

I didn’t take the audio guide to the show, mainly because I find them a bit distracting and the people who do have them tend to behave in a generally annoying way, but I have since seen comment that this one is very engaging about Manet and his group of friends, and I sort of wish I’d heard it, as it sounds like stories, and I like stories, especially if the art work is disappointing.

The exhibition is co-curated by the Toledo Museum of Art, and my oh my, are they a little bit put out over there in Ohio at being ignored in the UK press coverage of the show.

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  1. you are so entertaining! the window in my ‘office’ is open to the breeze and even the gardener outside looked up from his watering when he heard me laughing.


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