Manet’s Last Years: A Radical Embrace of Beauty

CHICAGO — I wonder how often he thought back on it: the outrage, the reproaches, the shame, the folly. In 1865, two years after they rejected his “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” the gatekeepers of the Paris Salon accepted two paintings by Édouard Manet into Europe’s most prestigious exhibition. One was a slablike, Spanish-influenced religious scene of Christ mocked by Roman legionaries. But it was the other that eclipsed more than 3,500 other works in the Salon, and set off a scandal that makes the recent brouhaha at the Whitney Biennial look as stately as a Noh drama.

Visitors shouted and bawled in front of “Olympia,” a radically flat depiction of a common prostitute, her servant and her cat with pitiless candor. Art students threw punches. Security guards had to be called in. The newspapers published brutal caricatures of Manet and his models, and art critics savaged it as “vile,” “ugly,” “stupid,” “shameless,” a work that “cries out for examination by the inspectors of public health.”

A more bohemian artist might have relished the hatred. Not Manet. He was a bourgeois Parisian, hungry for public approval and civic honors, even as he painted works of such frankness that they kept him outside the establishment. He had struck the first blows for modern art, but it came at a punishing social cost. And as he got older, he leaned away from the plainness of his scandalous youth to paint flowers, fruit bowls, and fashionable women, all in a lighter, pleasanter key that found favor even in the hidebound Salon.

This is the great paradox of the 19th century’s greatest painter, and it’s the crux, too, of the exhibition “Manet and Modern Beauty,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, which focuses on the art of Manet’s last six or seven years before his early death in 1883, at the age of 51. Fresh, charming, a bit evasive and almost too stylish, “Manet and Modern Beauty” sticks up for these later portraits, genre scenes and still lifes — which the last century’s art historians, enraptured by “Olympia” and her ilk, tended to dismiss with the three Fs: frivolous, fashionable and (worst of all) feminine.

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