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Painters of Modern Lives

Updated: 4 days ago

The “Manet/Degas” exhibition now on view at the Met is both radiant and off-putting in ways we can imagine each artist would appreciate. The galleries are noisy, and cramped, and it’s hard to focus with so many visitors straining for a chance to see fabulous paintings, often of people who stare back indifferently or carefully absent themselves from us. What are we doing here, gawking at figures whose gazes are reluctant, uneasy, or merely just for show?

In a recent review of this exhibition (which runs until January 7, 2024), New York Times art critic Holland Carter describes the two painters as “frenemies” – with Manet the extrovert, Degas the introvert – but to focus on their rivalry risks bundling them together too carelessly, sidestepping the completely different questions they ask (and answers they make up) about seeing, the rewards of publicity, and the consolations of secret space. Beginning in the 1860s, these men were part of a larger group of Parisian poets and artists including Charles Baudelaire, whose 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life recommended forswearing academic conventions to better represent modern life. Between Manet and Degas in particular is a history of insults, slights, shared loyalties and petty grievances, but these clashes are less important than their radically different approaches to public and private space. For Manet, the way in is out, as his sitters typically scan beyond the frame for validation, appreciation, and pleasure. For Degas, the goal is to leave viewers behind, to tell them where they can’t go, what they don’t need to know, what exists beyond their seeing, what continues despite their presence. These attitudes couldn’t be more different, even if a cursory glance—or stunning powerhouse exhibition—puts their works together in rich and thoughtful ways.


Manet’s paintings are bolder, more dramatic, and generally filled with brighter colors; the faces he shows tend to be fixed and unflinching like those on statues or printed on coins. Degas’s paintings (even when just as monumental in size) are dimmed by more shadows, with bodies bent away, and empty space occupying a larger role in the stories he tells.

The Dead Christ with Angels is a good example of Manet’s ideas about the happy, even sacred reunion seeing promises. The painting consoles us with an image of Jesus’s corpse presided over by two angels who, rather than letting us feel shock or guilt, take over as guides (taking us under their wings?). There’s no blood and no pain in this vision of shared space which cleans up God’s misery and our sin, and through angelic intervention, we get to be equals with these figures, exactly by looking.

Édouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels (1864). Metropolitan Museum

Édouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1868), Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Likewise, we are not intruding on the pastoral scene in Manet’s 1868 Le déjeuner sur l'herbe but instead allowed to feel ourselves to be a necessary part of the feasting: our appetites for gazing are just as legitimate and just as necessary as requirements for food and sex. Maybe Manet’s thesis here is that evolution cannot happen without some spectators, and the female nude’s male companions have thus dressed for the occasion, welcoming our view.  

Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Rarely allowed to leave the Musée d’Orsay, Manet’s Olympia is one of the anchors of the Met’s exhibit, and yet it is an incredibly destabilizing portrait, with a three pairs eyes and an assortment of obligations, demands, and attentions to sort through. The alabaster sex worker who lounges in front of us is also open for business; her servant (identified as a Black model named Laure whom Met curator Denise Murrell claims Manet painted at least three times) is standing above her employer, too busy to notice us--or less dependent upon our seeing. There’s also cat on the far right of the bed, a creature we’ve disturbed, but also the only thing able to slouch off or curl up or back away. The rest of us are locked together in a clearly public space set apart for the administration of carefully timed encounters, appointments, deliveries, and viewings. A similar distribution of seeing organizes Manet’s 1868-69 The Balcony, where four figures take their turns being viewed at while viewing us.  

Édouard Manet, Le Balcon (1868-1869). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

We meet Degas’s figures, in contrast, in private space, where we are obviously uninvited and unnecessary to the action underway. The people whom Degas represents are busy, self-involved, incapable of fakery, and always poised, even in states of undress. Degas’s paint gathers and twists mass, and his figures heave and shrug and frown, moving around great weight and holding themselves together with enormous resolve. 


It’s interesting, too, how often we see them taking off their clothes, preparing for a bath, combing their hair or someone else’s. The public sphere is dismantled by activities which have their own poetry and sets of rules, allowing individuals to then retreat to separate chambers or worlds off-site, places where no one can trouble them. These figures possess selves which are already finished, in no need of our completion: whether we see them or not is beside the fact. The drinkers in L’ Absinthe share space reluctantly, unproductively, only connected by their shadows. 

Edgar Degas, Dans un café (L'absinthe), (1875-1876). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Degas’s figures come together mostly to show us how separate they are. They have mutinous, defiant, indifferent spirits, and their glances are prophylactic, designed to ward us off or keep at bay. The woman drying herself in After the Bath (1890-95) is preparing to leave, her nudity not the leering invitation organizing Manet’s Olympia, but something temporary; and the tub, chair and towels she’s gathered around her are part of the equipment she uses to make her escape.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath,Woman drying herself (1890-1895). National Portrait Gallery, London

Edgar Degas, Repasseuses (1884). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Underscoring their skill and boredom, Degas’s portraits of laundresses envelop them in heavy clothes as a way to saddle them with objects and chores rather than debts or ties to other people. Figures are stranded in these settings, and sweating, drinking, yawning are all ways to pass the time before they can split apart and find relief. Life mostly keeps time here, without reward or reciprocity.  

Even when representing his own family, Degas underscores isolation and self-possession. In The Bellelli Family (1857-68), he represents the household interior as formed by tension and compromise, settled by quiet restraint. There were reports that his aunt’s marriage was unhappy, and the adult female in the painting is both pregnant and in mourning, a perfect emblem of the strains at work in the rest of the family unit—loss jostling up next to gain, affection keeping company with suspicion. Bodies have been carefully arranged so as not to disturb or impose upon others, as if the family system emerges from truce among warring energies, intimacies, and worries.

Edgar Degas, Portrait de famille (The Bellelli family)(1858-1867). Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The works of both painters are gorgeous and transformative, and seeing them together makes their concerns more urgent and solutions more curious. Still, while Manet’s pictures always pop, only Degas’s images startle and crackle. Both painters of modern life anticipate Freud and the Kardashians, Andy Warhol and Virginia Woolf in their representations of solitude and celebrity, inner needs and social capital. 


Elizabeth Mazzola has taught literature at The City College of New York for nearly 30 years, and currently is the chair of the English Department. She is the author of numerous publications, including Learning and Literacy in Female Hands (Ashgate, 2013) and Women and Mobility on Shakespeare’s Stage (Routledge, 2017) and recipient of several prestigious awards, including a Folger Shakespeare Library Fellowship. Although her research focuses primarily on medieval and early modern literature, her current project explores the ways later women writers represent ideas about gestation, labor, delivery, and abortion. She just moved to the Upper West Side with her dog, Chloe, eager to be back in NYC after too many years in the suburbs.


“Manet/Degas: Friendship, rivalry, and the birth of modern art”  through January 7, 2024

at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 5th Ave at 83rd St., East Side, Manhattan.



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