Edouard Manet was born in Paris, France on January 29, 1832. His mother, Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, was a woman of refinement and god daughter of Charles Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. His father was a magistrate in the Ministry of Justice. Manet was assumed to be destined for a similar career, but failed several times in his entrance requirements for Normal College. Finally, in 1850, he entered the school of the fashionable painter, Couture, which he attended more or less sporadically until 1856. He and Couture did not get along particularly well.
The school of Impressionism based itself chiefly on the work of Manet. But his work was such a radical change from the popular work of the time that his entries to the Salon for the years 1859, 1863 and 1865, were subjects for a storm of abuse. Manet did not begin painting out-of-doors until about 1870. His most ardent defender, Emile Zola, was obliged to resign from his post on “Figaro” because of his editorial support of the painter. By 1881 Manet finally achieved public recognition and, among other awards, received the Legion of Honor.
Manet was witty, kind and handsome, a gentleman who would only be vulgar intentionally. He was a student of the surface of life, a lover of women, both clothed and unclothed, an advocate of light, an innovator of the use of form and color. He was a little older than most of the other artists in the Impressionist group, he belonged to the upper bourgeoisie, and he had more financial independence than any other artist associated with that group except Degas. About 1862, Manet had
encountered by chance a lively and attractive young woman who was to be his favorite model until 1875. Her name was Victorine Meurent, and she appears to have had a remarkable ability to adapt her appearance to any costumes or poses that the artist suggested. He was often ridiculed for the changes in painting he brought about, but he couldn’t paint studio nudes in various shades of tobacco juice, as was the custom of the day.
Suzanne Leenhoff, a young, attractive Dutch girl from whom he had taken piano lessons, and Manet were married in October 1863, although their liaison had begun some thirteen years earlier. How they met was a matter of speculation; it is generally accepted that Leon Leenhoff, born to Suzanne in 1852, was Manet’s son, although in polite society he was known as her brother.
Berthe Morisot, among the artists who became known as impressionists, was also a good friend and loyal follower of Manet. She often posed for him. Later she married Manet’s brother Eugene. Between 1860 and 1874 Manet painted eleven portraits of Morisot; she was adorned with veils, ribbons and fans which scholars attributed to his fondness for Spanish costume. Another theory is that Manet harbored a personal infatuation for Morisot as well as a deep professional jealousy. He ceased to paint her after she married.
As he began to age, Manet began to devote more and more time to working in pastels, a medium that required less sustained effort than oil painting. He became increasingly racked with pain and it was thought that his problem was severe rheumatism. Manet left Paris in the summer of 1880 for the neighboring suburb of Bellevue, renowned for its agreeable villas and for its waters. He painted the last of eleven paintings of his wife during this period. After his death on April 30, 1883, the first comprehensive exhibition of his paintings was held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.