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Manet's Painting Methods*

Manet's paintings aroused public and critical. ire because of their subject matter and their
ostensibly slapdash technique. These two issues are interrelated because new methods were
sought to render new ideas. The technique was not, in fact, radically innovative, but the
context in which it was presented challenged established tradition.

Manet responded to Couture's attitude to rapid execution and to the ebauche, because it
permitted an immediate response to the idea, the image growing under the brush and the
immediate rendering of a moment of contemporary life. Whereas Couture would present in
public only "finished" paintings, in which the initial statement had been modified, Manet.
was prepared to regard ebauche methods as yielding the finished statement. Thus, although
he manipulated his paint surface, each layer was executed alla prima, and retained a fluid
and personalised painterly appearance.

Manet favoured the use of opaque colour and seldom used glazes (which could only be
applied on a dry underpainting). He made no attempt to disguise the evidence of his hand in
the paint application. Paint was to be seen as paint and not merely as a means of rendering
appearances in the real world. The standardised tube colour helped Manet to realise his
objectives. In effect, Manet took Couture's concept of the ebauche and transformed it into an
original means of expression. Hanson comments:

"Manet used Couture's technique in his work of the fifties and sixties, but moved away
from earth colours to local colours in the execution of the ebauche. Whereas a
traditionally unfinished picture revealed itself by the brown underpainting, his ebauche
in local colours appeared as an immediate expression of nature."

Manet differed from Couture on one very significant technical issue. Whereas his master
taught the careful analysis and rendering of midtones, Manet believed that light presents
itself so forcefully to the eye that it should be depicted by simplified tones in order to retain
its immediacy. In reducing midtones and concentrating on simple areas of dark and light,
Manet flattened the picture plane, because he negated illusionism, which was achieved by
subtle transitions. His interpretation of the effects of light on the perception of objects was
doubtless enhanced by photographic evidence. The camera provided proof of the translation
of' three-dimensional information into two-dimensional information; it became obvious that
form could be represented by a reduced tonal scheme. Eyes which had grown accustomed to
observing a complex gradation of midtones believed that the camera distorted. The same
hostility which was displayed towards the camera was directed against Manet. In his
condemnation of Manet, Dubufe commented, "he sees certain realities of things like the
photograph and he errs in his values like photography".

Manet's exploration of the visual and pictorial implications of a simplified tonal scheme
culminated in the assurance with which he handled the nude in Olympia (1863). It is worth
quoting Hamilton at some length for his assessment of the technique used in this
painting and the public response to this painting.

"In the Olympia the technical and conceptual experiments of the earlier years finally
found a coherent and complete expression. The restricted colour range of the Bullfight,
the full frontal lighting of the Dead Christ, the contemporary subject devoid of any
moralizing or romantic idealization which he had sought but never achieved in the
Spanish themes and which had been compromised in the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe by the
ambiguous treatment of' the theme, all this was now realized in terms of simplified
colour and design and with a new assurance in technique. Manet's technical innovation
lay in the suppression of almost all the intermediate values between the highest light
and the deepest shade. Only along the edges of the forms, along the contours, was there
a pronounced and then very abrupt change in value. Today we read these outlined
shapes as three-dimensional form without difficulty; in 1865 to eyes so long
accustomed to more complex and gradual transitions from light to dark, Olympia
looked like an arrangement of flat patterns lacking the depth and three-dimensionality
needed in such elaborate compositions."

Manet's use. of juxtaposed areas of dark tone, and his use of black-as a colour, and not as
a tone (which are characteristics of much of his work, particularly of the 1860s) was wholly
different from that of' many of' his contemporaries and demonstrates a very different
technical procedure.

Many mid -19th century painters favoured the use of bitumen, because of its beautiful,
transparent brown colour. They loaded canvases with this unstable pigment and produced
works which were superficially dramatic and flashy. The comments of Quentin Bell, although he is talking specifically of mid - l9th century British painters, are equally relevant to many French artists. He uses the term "slosh" and says:

"... it was a method of painting and also, I think a state of mind. Slosh was liberty degenerating into licence, the bravura that serves to conceal feebleness ... it was the method of painters who worked with a big thick brush loaded with bitumen, bitumen which would glow with a splendid dark warmth when new, "like the tone of an old brown violin", but which would presently darken and crack ... . Slosh is all manner and no matter, all parade and no feeling, all skill and no direction. "

Manet was the very antithesis of' a "slosher". He exercised a clear decisiveness in his organisation of the picture plane, distributed his tone throughout the format to direct the eye over the surface and to allude to the three-dimensional form, and he used a painterly technique judiciously, with a sensitive understanding of paint quality. There was nothing of the ostentatious showman in Manet, no indulgence in paint to conceal problems, but rather a use of brush and pigment, tonality and colour, to reveal his perception of the contemporary environment and of the pictorial surface.


* Drawn from notes compiled by B Schmahmann for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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