The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most intriguing recent exhibition is absolute “Manet/Degas.” A collaboration between The Met and Musées d’Orsay, this highly curated and unique exhibition brings together two of the most iconic Impressionist artists and compares the overlaps and differences between their life trajectories and artistic creations. Through the artworks, this exhibition tells the story of 19th-century French society, the dynamics of the world, and the lives of these two outstanding painters. The exhibition features more than 160 paintings and works on paper, including some of the most famous and popular of their lives.
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) were born just two years apart into upper-middle-class families in Paris. The similar historical background and support from their families granted them access to an education and cultural exposure that would eventually shape their artistic visions. Manet and Degas were not only contemporaries but also had been deeply connected throughout their lives and in their artistic endeavors. They are both friends who shared a lifelong artistic journey and competitors in the Parisian art scene.
A lot of ingenuity has gone into the curation of the exhibition — works by two artists that are related to each other are often placed together in comparison. For example, in one gallery that focuses on their enigmatic relationship, works depicting Madame Manet, Manet’s wife, playing the piano are placed next to each other. Manet depicts his wife in an elegant and dignified manner, but Degas captures an idle moment when Manet is casually half-lying on the sofa listening to his wife play the piano. Interestingly enough, this was a gift that Degas wanted to give Manet, but Manet was furious when he saw it and tore it up so that only half of Madame Manet was left in the work on display. Although this incident almost caused a rift between the two artists, their appreciation for each other’s art eased their relationship, and they borrowed many of each other’s themes in their work.
One of the essential places for young artists to make their mark in nineteenth-century Paris was the Salon, a place for all those who wanted to make a name for themselves, as well as for discerning critics and collectors. Manet and Degas were regulars, and it was here that Manet’s Olympia (1863-65), the first work of his artistic career to attract widespread attention, was born. This work caused an uproar when it was first exhibited because of the extreme boldness of the courtesan’s nude image on such a large-scale painting. Although the model’s pose can be easily seen as a reference to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Manet had Olympia looking directly at the viewers from the painting, as if to give everyone a sense of oppression, scrutinizing the viewer’s gaze as it rests on her nude body. In addition, the maid who appears with the flowers is a black figure, reflecting the emerging black community in Paris at the time. When Olympia receives the bouquet, perhaps from the guest from the previous night, and looks directly at you, she seems to be saying, “Thank you, for your flowers.”
Another highly anticipated painting in this exhibition is Degas’s The Dancing Class (1870). At a time when Manet was looking over the tumultuous times of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, Degas devoted much of his energy to depicting the dancers of the ballet class, which became his most recognizable subject. Degas’s interest in interiors and his depictions of the human body reveal the intimate yet complex modern life, as well as the richness and diversity of the nineteenth-century artistic atmosphere and life through these everyday places.
The Manet/Degas exhibition at The MET is a very rare and special opportunity to get to know two giants of art history together. By direct and close comparison through the works of Manet and Degas, this entire exhibition provides the chance to truly discover one artist’s work through the work of another. Just as Max Hollein, Director and CEO of The MET, said, “This exhibition highlights one of the most significant dialogues in the history of modern painting. The installation and accompanying catalog shed new scholarly light on both their artistic and social relationships, providing an understanding of the points of similarity and difference that constitute the richness of their respective oeuvres.”
In addition to some of the important works mentioned in this article, there are many more noteworthy paintings to be discovered. The exhibition will run until January 7th, 2024, so if you are interested in art history or any of the artists, or want to get a glimpse of the vivid and gorgeous 19th-century Paris, this exhibition will never disappoint you.