The Dead Christ with Angels by Édouard Manet

The Dead Christ with Angels by Édouard Manet (1864)

Today, My Daily Art Display returns to the French painter of contemporary urban life and who was a leading figure in the shift from Realism to Impressionism and was looked upon as one of the founding fathers of Modernism.  So many –“isms” !   We have seen examples of these three -isms before but let me just do a recap of the meaning of these terms.

Realism was prevalent in the mid to late nineteenth century and this movement believed that painters should represent the world exactly as it was, even if it was at the expense of some artistic and social principles.  It was looked upon at the time as very controversial and often the works were viewed as being morally wrong and wicked because they challenged and broke the conventional standards of what was termed “good taste”.

Impressionism had its origins in France between 1860 and 1900 and soon spread to other western countries.   In a way it was, in some ways, a rejection of Academicism which promoted the Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection and which had a stringent hierarchy within the visual arts favouring the grand narrative and historical paintings.  The Impressionist painters and Impressionism wanted nothing to do with such Academic traditions but preferred to emphasise an accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities and looking how light changed with the time of day.  They would often paint outdoors (en plein air).   The Impressionist style of painting can be typified by its attention on the common impression produced by a scene or object and the way the artists tended to use unmixed primary colors and small brushstrokes in order to imitate real reflected light.

Finally Modernism, which was a very broad movement that also began around the latter years of the nineteenth century, and was a type of art that reflected modern times and did not keep looking back at times past.  The Modernist artists believed that the modern world they lived in was fundamentally different to what had gone before and that art needed renew itself and move on.  It was all about the artist’s vision of the future.

My featured artist today is Édouard Manet.  He was born in Paris in 1832 and was brought up in a wealthy, upper class household.  He was the eldest son of Auguste Manet, a judge and the Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Justice and Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, the Swedish crown prince.  His father had hoped that young Édouard would follow him into the legal profession.  However even though he was well educated, Manet did not particularly shine academically but he did show a predisposition toward drawing and the arts.  In 1844, aged twelve years old, he enrolled at the College Rollin, a secondary school where he became friends with Antonin Proust, who would, in the future, become the French Minister of Fine Arts.   It was also around this time that Manet’s uncle, Charles Fournier, encouraged his enjoyment of the arts and the two of them along with Antonin Proust, would go on trips to the Louvre.

Manet had set his heart on going to sea and twice sat the entrance exam to a naval training school but in both cases failed.  He did however manage, with help from his father, to get a trip on the training ship Guadeloupe voyaging to Rio in 1848 and returning home in June the following year.   His father had by this time given up any hope of his son entering the legal profession and acquiesced to his son’s desire to become an artist.   For a six-year period, beginning in1850, Manet studies in the studios of Thomas Couture the Academic and History painter.  His relationship with his master was very strained and they would frequently clash.  It was around this time that he registers as a copyist at the Louvre and studies the works of the old masters, such as Velazquez and Goya.  Although impressed with their paintings, he believed that his works should reflect the ideas and ideals of the present time and not like theirs, keep harking back to the past.   Manet was a great friend and constant companion of Charles Beaudelaire, the great poet and art critic who was credited with coining the term modernité to designate the brief short-lived experience of life in an urban metropolis and he believed that art must be held accountable to capture the experience.  His advice to Manet about his art was that he should depict a contemporary realism, and had to become “le peintre de la vie moderne.

The year 1852 was the start of a change for Paris and Parisiennes as the great modernization of the city started on the direct orders of Napoleon III, under the supervision of Baron Georges- Eugène Haussmann.  The infrastructure often going back to medieval times had become inadequate, roads were too narrow and buildings were becoming unsafe.  In the great renovation programme, streets were widened and lengthened, houses pulled down to make way for new ones, shop fronts replaced.  All this work was labour-intensive and thousands of jobs were created people poured into the city from the outlying countryside to gain employment.  The whole of the social and cultural life of Paris changed with such a migration of labour.  Paris became one of the most beautiful and culturally progressive cities in the world and it was this modernity that Manet wanted to record in his works of art.

I will leave Manet’s biography at this point in his life and will conclude it in a later blog but for today I want to look at one of his earlier paintings entitled The Dead Christ with Angels, which he completed in 1864 and which can now be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  This was the first of a number of paintings by Manet that had religious subject matter. The biennial and later, annual Parisian Salons were considered the most expedient way for an artist to make himself known to the public, and Manet submitted paintings to Salon juries throughout his career.  He submitted today’s featured painting in 1864 exhibition.

The inscription indicates Manet’s source, but the passage he cited describes Mary Magdalene finding Christ’s tomb empty except for the two angels whereas his painting shows the two angels with Christ.  If that wasn’t bad enough Manet realised, albeit too late, when the painting was already on its way to the 1864 Salon Exhibition that he had made an even greater mistake with regards the accuracy of the biblical tale he had depicted.   Can you spot it?

In his painting he has painted the wound on the left side of Christ and not, as convention would have it, on his right side.   He immediately contacted his friend Baudelaire and told him of this error, and his friend advised him to correct the position of the wound in the painting before the exhibition opening.  He warned Manet that if he didn’t then his critics would have a field day, adding, “take care not to give the malicious something to laugh at.”   Manet’s submissions to the Salon of 1864 were again condemned by critics, for his painting of Christ and the Angels as they put it showed “a lack of decorum”.   The critics further denounced the work for its realistic touches, such as the cadaverous body of Christ and the seemingly human angels.  They argued that the painting totally lacked any sense of spirituality; the figure of the battered Christ was said to more closely resemble the body of a dead coal miner than the son of God.

Manet did not repaint the wound, and as Beaudelaire had foreseen, the critics derided his error. Only the writer, Émile Zola, gave the painting the respect it deserved.  Zola felt that Manet’s intention was to emphasize the reality of the corpse, even though he called attention to its holiness by including a halo.