Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat
By Beth Archer Brombert
Little, Brown and Company
505 pp., $29.95
Paul Gauguin: A Life
By David Sweetman
Simon & Schuster
600 pp., $35
Elegant, courteous, consummately Parisian from his top-hat to the tip of his polished walking-stick, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was in many respects the opposite of his fellow artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the brusque, unkempt bohemian who fled the constraints of European civilization to spend the last dozen years of his life in the South Sea Islands.
Both men, however, were associated with the Impressionists, both were radical republicans, and both had spent some time in the Navy when young. Manet was a highly trained artist, Gauguin a stockbroker whose Sunday painting became an obsession. When their paths crossed on one occasion, Manet had kind words for the younger man's artistic efforts. Gauguin, for his part, was powerfully influenced by Manet's painting "Olympia."
Although viewed, with some justification, as the leader of the Impressionists (the honor has also been given to Camille Pissarro), Manet had broader aims as an artist. As his latest biographer, Beth Archer Brombert, emphasizes throughout her engrossing account of his life and work, his hope was "to create a total art of painting in which the past and all its national schools ... were finally joined under his brush."
Manet's style was a cause of continual controversy. Painting outdoors in natural light, trying to capture a sense of spontaneity, and eliminating half-tones were seen as abrogations of the classical tradition. Manet was even criticized for painting the Seine blue instead of the green traditionally used.
His controversial, and for their time scandalous, nudes in "Olympia" and "Le Djeuner sur l'herbe," were conscious tributes to the Renaissance nymphs and goddesses of Titian and Giorgione, but shocking because they were shorn of their classical trappings and translated into modern women.
Brombert moves beyond the purely formal aspects of Manet's genius to examine the sociopolitical and personal components of his art. She finds evidence of marital discontent in his portraits of his wife, Suzanne, and signs of ambivalence in his renditions of Leon, the youth said to be Suzanne's younger brother but who, Brombert feels confident, was the son she had by Manet before the two were married.
Brombert proves a witty and knowledgeable guide to the culture and society of 19thcentury France, from the unabashed materialism to the privations of the Franco-Prussian war. She provides a particularly lucid explanation of the origin and significance of the yearly Salon for French artists hoping to gain recognition.
Despite repeated rejections by the Salon, Manet continued submitting his paintings, a few of which received the occasional nod. Esteemed by the younger Impressionists who followed in his wake and a friend to three of the most innovative writers of his century - Charles Baudelaire, mile Zola, and Stphane Mallarm - Manet managed to become quite famous, but without really finding many customers and without being accorded the official approbation he felt he deserved.
"Manet," Brombert proposes, "might...be seen as a bridge, joining the tradition behind him with a new approach to painting ... not an iconoclast overturning altars, but a man with a vision, convinced that the future would prove him right."
David Sweetman's immensely detailed life of Paul Gauguin, a pioneer who called himself "a savage from Peru," also provides a wealth of historical background about 19th-century France and about Gauguin's unusual history. His maternal great-uncle was the last viceroy of Peru, and young Paul, though born in Paris, spent roughly the first seven years of his life in Lima. On returning to France, he had to learn French as a second language. His maternal grandmother had been a radical feminist. His mother was widowed soon after his birth.
A restless man, Gauguin latched on to various movements - Impressionists, Symbolists - even inventing a term of his own, "Synthetist." His deep affinity for "primitive" cultures reflected his hope to find somewhere he could truly be himself.
Sweetman is no apologist for this difficult, dissolute man, but his account of Gauguin's struggles arouses a sense of sympathy with an artist whose obsessions turned out to have such universal resonance.
*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.