Manet and Degas as Realists

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Technically, Edouard Manet (1832–1883) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917 are not Impressionists; instead, they are Realists whose works owe a debt to Gericault, Goya, and Daumier and the invention of photography. Unlike Monet, who sought solace and inspiration in nature, which can be seen as a reaction to the urbanization associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, Manet and Degas instead embraced the industrialization and urbanization driven by bourgeois economic interests. They were unconcerned with the dehumanizing effects of rapid technological advancement. Realism is aimed at depicting scenes and subjects based on the everyday lives of ordinary people.

The show Manet/Degas at the Metropolitan seems to be a Manet retrospect supplemented with the work of Degas. While it follows their parallel careers, the exhibition ends abruptly in 1883, the year of Manet’s death. The final gallery is a room of works by Manet in Degas’ collection. As for Degas, who lived another 34 years, he is best represented in this exhibit by a gallery of his racetrack painting and one large pastel of a woman bathing. To see him at his best, one must visit the Metropolitan’s collection.

Though of very different temperaments, Manet and Degas were friends; they both came from upper-class families, and neither was a bohemian. They traveled in the same social circles, e.g., they knew the same people, and both had disappointed their parents by becoming artists. Manet’s father was a bureaucrat; Degas came from an extended family of cotton merchants. They were Republicans; both stayed in Paris during the siege of the Commune.One learns this from the first few introductory galleries ordered biographically, which compares the two young artists’ development. Then, as the exhibition’s centerpiece, one comes to Manet’s Olympia, a painting of a courtesan. At this point, I expected the exhibition to turn from the biographical to the thematic. Degas’ Scene from the Steeplechase, Fallen Jockey (1867), and Olympia (1863) were exhibited at the Salon. Both paintings take their subjects from contemporary life. While Degas was keen to portray his subject’s emotional and psychological aspects, Manet used his art confrontationally, seeking to expose his class’s hypocrisies. Consequently, Olympia was a cause célèbre, and Degas’s painting was critically ignored.

What links them is that each, in their way, aims to document contemporary life and society. Yet, the visual record they produce is not that of the demimonde’s bohemian lifestyle or the working classes’ plight but instead that of the Parisian petite bourgeois. In the mid-19th century, the bourgeoisie was the middle class between the dying aristocracy and the nascent working classes. As property owners and manufacturers, they represented the nouveau riche who were still vying for social status and political power. Though having instigated several democratic revolutions (1830,1848) in the mid-19th Century, the bourgeoisie had not yet gained political or ideological dominance; as such, their tastes, values, and sensibilities could still be considered either vulgar or radical. With economic and political power, the bourgeoisie would become increasingly conservative, seeking status by adopting aristocratic values.

As seen in the pairing of Manet and Degas, the Realist movement that emerged in reaction to the Romantic Revolution encouraged young artists to break with the academic traditions associated with aristocracy and feudalism. Yet, Manet and Degas’ earliest works demonstrate their appreciation for classical traditions. They easily rejected the academic techniques taught in the established art institutions and the styles that dominated the Salon—given the residual influence of the Romantics, Manet, and Degas sought something more individualistic and personal. Such ambitions conflicted with the aristocratic and feudal traditions of the Academy in which the past was to dictate the present. For these young Turks, the goal was to express the new — the modern. Subsequently, this desire to express their independence cut them off from the Academy, the Salon, and traditional aristocratic and state patronage. Thankfully, as in the case of Manet and Degas, they had family money to sustain them.

The mythology of early Modernism and its Avant-Grade are built on misrepresenting this comingling of the Romantic Revolution and Realism. They are portrayed in most accounts as opposing industrialization, urbanization, and the prevailing bourgeois ideology. Yet, Romanticism celebrated individualism, emphasizing subjectivity, which at the time aligned with the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary values, which championed personal freedom, self-expression, and innovation. Likewise, Romanticism promoted a sense of regional identity and pride, which aligned with the bourgeois vision of a shared cultural identity that could be seen as a unifying national force. The rise of 19th-century nationalism also gave rise to imperialism, which served the bourgeoisie seeking to secure national and international markets for goods and raw materials.

Manet’s early works, depicting marginalized individuals such as a rag picker, an absinthe drinker, etc. or Degas’ portrayal of the cotton exchange in New Orleans and the steeplechase, reflect the Realists’ concern with the observable rather than the idealized. So, while Manet and Degas sought to give the viewer a sense of candidness and immediacy, Claude Monet, under the Impressionist banner, was primarily concerned with a scientific understanding of color and light, whereas Renoir used pointillist brushwork to model the forms of the human figure. Given such differing objectives, we can conclude that the gloss that tells us that the Impressionists were primarily focused on capturing the immediacy and transient effects of light and color is inexact and inaccurate. The group of artists identified with Impressionism, like the Abstract Expressionists, were a mixed bag. What joins them together is a vague notion of what constitutes realism and an interest in expressing their subjectivity. Given this history, I had imagined or wanted a Degas and Manet exhibition that focused on working women, from prostitutes to shop-girls to barmaids, to ballerinas all of whom would have been considered a modern phenomenon.

The Industrial Revolution and urbanization played pivotal roles in transforming the nature of opportunities for women, creating new types of jobs beyond traditional agricultural and domestic work. The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of industries, creating a demand for labor in factories, shops, and offices. This shift from agrarian economies to industrial ones created a demand for cheap labor. Working-class women often had different experiences compared to their middle-class counterparts who entered professions such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. Women artists, writers, and entrepreneurs also gained prominence during this era. Despite these opportunities, women still faced numerous challenges, including lower wages compared to men, limited access to higher-paying or leadership positions, and societal expectations regarding their roles as wives and mothers.

During the 19th century, many girls and young women from the rural provinces of France, which often faced economic hardships, were drawn to the cities, which promised better economic opportunities to support themselves and their families. They sought to find employment in factories or other urban industries. In some cases, girls had family members or acquaintances who had been part of the great labor migration to urban centers, making the transition to the city more feasible. Meanwhile, Paris was romanticized as a cultural and artistic hub of glamor and fashion— think Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary. Some young women were attracted to experiencing the vibrant city life and cultural scene. For some, the prospect of finding a husband in the cities offered a larger pool of potential suitors compared to rural areas.

It’s important to note that while urban centers offered women new opportunities, they also had their challenges, including crowded living conditions, economic disparities, and social issues. The experiences of girls from the provinces would have varied widely based on their circumstances and aspirations. Women in the 19th century had limited legal and economic rights, which could leave them financially vulnerable and often reliant on the informal economy, which included streetwalkers, petty criminals, and beggars. So, while these changes opened new opportunities for women, the experiences and paths they took were influenced by their social class, geographic location, and prevailing cultural norms. This marked a significant step toward greater gender equality, setting the stage for the struggles of the 20th century.

Manet and Degas depicted women from diverse backgrounds—laundresses, shop girls, barmaids, domestics, ballerinas, mistresses, and prostitutes. Where laundresses performed physically demanding tasks like washing and ironing clothes, shop girls typically worked in the burgeoning retail market, which allowed them to earn wages. Their work was characterized by long hours and low pay, and their social status depended on factors such as the type of shop they worked at. We all know how prostitutes and ballerinas earn their money. Others, such as factory and agricultural workers, go undepicted in Manet and Degas’s work — after all, where would such gentlemen encounter such women? Consequently, while all these women were engaged in work, their portrayal and the associated social commentaries associated with them differed significantly.

Manet’s women often appeared in provocative and unconventional scenes, challenging traditional norms and societal expectations. Their subjects caused controversy not because they criticized the social conditions of the women but because they deviated from conventional idealized depictions. These works challenged established notions of modesty and propriety. Manet’s women were frequently portrayed with a bold and direct gaze, confronting the viewer with assertiveness and independence. His brushwork and use of color added to the immediacy of his depictions. In contrast, Degas’ women were often portrayed in intimate, domestic settings such as at their bath, or on stage. Even in these settings, the emphasis was on their labor and routines, often capturing the ordinary aspects of their lives. Degas’ use of pastels and meticulous attention to detail lent his works a sense of softness, sensitivity, and empathy. Both artistic approaches provided insights into the male subject’s perspective. However, the exhibition fails to single out Manet’s and Degas’ women. Occasionally, it is their counterparts who put in appearances as mothers, relatives, friends, and models.

The problem with the exhibit Manet/Degas is that the curators prioritized biography and chronology over historical context and revisionism. Consequently, the exhibition does not provide a comprehensive glimpse into contemporary life and society. Instead, it offers an account of Manet and Degas’ tendency to create works portraying domestic scenes, family life, and the comforts of middle-class existence, accompanied by the occasional scene of changing social norms. These depictions resonate with the bourgeois desire for stability and security. Their stylistic innovations, including bold brushwork and color, appear to result from their interest in life’s tangible and materialistic aspects rather than rebellion against the neo-classicists’ more polished and detailed techniques and idealized subjects. As such, the promised chronicle of everyday contemporary Parisian life is largely devoid of café life or mysterious liaisons. Instead, it offers a glimpse into their domestic and studio lives of these two artists, in which they sought to reconcile the rupture of contemporary life by establishing a dialogue between modernity and tradition.

Manet/Degas, September 24, 2023–January 7, 2024. Now on view at The Met Fifth AvenueGallery 899

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.

.Publisher’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in “Opinion” pieces do not reflect the views of Art Spiel