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Manet is perhaps the Godfather of impressionism. His breakaway from traditional realism practiced by many of the painters of his day created a stir not unlike Rock n’ Roll did to swing music. Many of his followers and devotees were some of the greatest impressionists and modern painters who ever lived.
His early masterworks, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and Olympia, engendered great controversy and served as rallying points for the young painters who would create Impressionism. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the genesis of modern art.
Édouard Manet was born in Paris on 23 January 1832, to an affluent and well connected family. His mother, Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, was the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince, Charles Bernadotte, from whom the current Swedish monarchs are descended. His father, Auguste Manet, was a French judge who expected Édouard to pursue a career in law. His uncle, Charles Fournier, encouraged him to pursue painting and often took young Manet to the Louvre. In 1841 he enrolled at secondary school, the Collège Rollin. In 1845, at the advice of his uncle, Manet enrolled in a special course of drawing where he met Antonin Proust, future Minister of Fine Arts and subsequent life-long friend.
At his father’s suggestion, in 1848 he sailed on a training vessel to Rio de Janeiro. After Manet twice failed the examination to join the Navy, the elder Manet relented to his son’s wishes to pursue an art education. From 1850 to 1856, Manet studied under the academic painter, Thomas Couture. In his spare time, Manet copied the old masters in the Louvre.
From 1853 to 1856 he visited Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, during which time he absorbed the influences of the Dutch painter Frans Hals, as well as the Spanish artists, Diego Velázquez and Francisco José de Goya.
In 1856, Manet opened his own studio. His style in this period was characterized by loose brush strokes, simplification of details and the suppression of transitional tones. Adopting the current style of realism initiated byGustave Courbet, he painted The Absinthe Drinker (1858–59) and other contemporary subjects such as beggars, singers, Gypsies, people in cafés, and bullfights. After his early years, he rarely painted religious, mythological, or historical subjects; examples include his Christ Mocked, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, and Christ with Angels, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. At the Salon in 1861 Manet had two canvases accepted. A portrait of his mother and father, the latter paralysed and robbed of speech at this time by a stroke, was ill received by critics. The other , The Spanish Singer, was admired by Theophile Gautier , and placed in a more conspicuous location as a result of its popularity with Salon-goers. And Manet’s work, that appeared “slightly slapdash” when compared with the meticulous style of so many other Salon paintings intrigued some young artists. The Spanish Singer, painted in a “strange new fashion” caused many painters’ eyes to open and their jaws to drop.