The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot,
Degas and Cassatt
by Jeffrey Meyers
"The leader, the hero of Realism, is now Manet. His partisans are frenzied and his detractors timid. It would seem that, if one refuses to accept Manet, one must fear being taken for a philistine, a bourgeois , a Joseph Prudhomme [JP, created by caricaturist Henri Monnier, was a personification of the vulgar self satisfied bourgeois who grew up under the July Monarchy], an idiot who cares for nothing but miniatures and painted porcelain . . ." - Théophile Gautier, writing in Le Moniteur universel.
Meyers is an accomplished scholar, biographer and editor, with highly regarded studies of Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence and other literary lions to his credit. Writing about the impressionists is a perfect match for his talents because of the intimate relationship of art and letters in the late 19th century.
In his four-subject biography Meyers illuminates the intimacies of Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Their private ordeals and inner demons are used to accentuate the brilliance of their paintings and the revolutionary implications of their artistic vision. Many have speculated that the two male artists enjoyed sexual as well as artistic relationships with their female disciples. Meyers examines contemporary and modern secondary sources (the two couples’ letters were all burned), recording every connection. While he is not completely successful in this endeavor his journey is fascinating nonetheless.
An important aspect of nineteenth century art was the impact of Baudelaire. His concept of the modern painter was a charge of dynamite that Manet detonated in 1863 when he exhibited "Luncheon on the Grass." The enigmatic depiction of a nude woman lounging with fully dressed men in a forest glade was a frank admission of sexuality. It created a furor, as did his "Olympia," the even more arresting view of an unclothed (and visibly bored) prostitute viewing her next client. Both women look directly at the viewer, underscoring the complicity to be found in the eye of the beholder. Despite efforts to secure popular acclaim, Manet was never to rid himself of the notoriety provoked by "Luncheon" and "Olympia." Moreover, his inner torment affected his relationship with Berthe Morisot and found a counterpoint in the private lives of his friends Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
There is much more in this educating and entertaining look at the lives of four Impressionist masters.
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