Manet/Degas: a compelling portrait of friends, rivals, jealousy and slashed paintings

A comparative exhibition in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases world famous masterpieces and rarely seen works from around the world

Rarely in the history of art have two painters had so much in common, yet been so different, as Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the friends and rivals who inspired the Impressionist movement.

The Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have brought together 140 works in Manet/Degas, a comparative exhibition combining world famous masterpieces from their own collections and rarely loaned works from around the world. The show will remain in Paris until July 23rd, then move to the Met from September 2023 until January 2024.

The opposite characters of Manet and Degas are evident in self-portraits at the entry. Though Manet was nearing 50 when he painted his, he appears younger in spirit than Degas at age 21. A renowned dandy, Manet wears a buttercup yellow jacket. His unkempt blond hair and beard give him the air of a Bohemian painter. Degas looks more like an undertaker than a ground-breaking artist.

Manet’s contemporary Théodore de Banville immortalised him in poetry as “This laughing, blond Manet ... Gay, subtle, charming ... exuding grace…”. The Italian painter Giuseppe De Nittis praised Manet’s “sunny soul, which I love.”


How could Degas not have been jealous?

“Manet was talked about in the newspapers, and not just art journals,” says Stéphane Guégan, a co-commissioner of the exhibition. “He liked giving interviews. His work may have been misunderstood, but his elegance and charm were appreciated.” Degas, on the other hand, was secretive, press-shy and reluctant to show his work.

The two painters are believed to have met in the Louvre around 1860. Manet began showing in the official Salon, the only path to recognition, attended by half a million people, the following year; Degas in 1865. Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia (both 1863, Musée d’Orsay) created scandals. Degas’s work went unnoticed.

“Manet understood better what the public wanted,” Guégan says. “His painting is easier to decipher than Degas’s. Manet projected his figures to the foreground, whereas Degas’s remained dispersed. There is something decisive about everything Manet does. Later, after Manet died, Degas said he always admired Manet’s self-assurance and composure.”

Olympia exemplified Manet at his most transgressive. Brothels and mistresses were staples of male bourgeois life in the 19th century, but they were taboo subjects. Idealised nudes from classical mythology were acceptable to the official Salon. An unabashed prostitute staring at the viewer with one hand over her pubis as flowers arrive from a client was not. Even the black cat perched at her feet was a symbol of lubriciousness.

By painting his model and mistress, Victorine Meurent, in this way, Manet exploded the hypocrisy of his own social class. Gendarmes had to prevent visitors to the Salon from slashing the painting with knives. It may have been his response to the death of his father, a high-ranking official in the ministry of justice, from syphilis the previous year. Manet would die of the same disease.

Women who went to cafes were presumed to be prostitutes, so the sisters Berthe and Edma Morisot, aspiring painters, instead invited artists to a weekly salon organised by their mother

Guégan compares Manet’s Olympia to Les Fleurs du Mal, Charles Baudelaire’s book of sonnets, which was censored in 1857. “Like Baudelaire, Manet awakens our conscience,” says the art historian. “He transforms us from passive spectators into people capable of reflecting on bourgeois morality and the depth of hypocrisy.”

Manet and Degas were from the same grand bourgeois milieu. Their families wanted them to be lawyers. Manet’s mother was the goddaughter of the king of Sweden. Much of the Degas family emigrated to Italy and to New Orleans, where they made fortunes in banking and cotton.

Manet and Degas would often run into one another at the Guerbois and Nouvelle Athènes cafes. The Irish writer George Moore frequented both painters and wrote of their “friendship shaken by inevitable rivalry”. Manet mocked Degas’s long theoretical perorations.

Women who went to cafes were presumed to be prostitutes, so the sisters Berthe and Edma Morisot, aspiring painters, instead invited artists to a weekly salon organised by their mother. Degas went into ecstasies over Berthe’s pink satin shoes. Manet told his friend and fellow painter Henri Fantin-Latour that he found the Morisot sisters charming, adding that it was a pity they were not men.

Manet recruited Berthe Morisot as a model for The Balcony (1868-69, Musée d’Orsay) modelled after Goya’s Las Majas. Morisot leans on the railing outside Manet’s mother’s apartment, flanked by a violinist who was a friend of Manet’s wife Suzanne, and a painter. Over 15 subsequent oil paintings, watercolours and engravings by Manet, Morisot matures from an innocent, bride-like figure to what Guégan refers to as “a lesson in female seduction”. In an 1872 portrait, Berthe hides her face behind a black lace fan and flirtatiously extends a foot shod in a pink satin shoe.

When the Prussian army invaded France in 1870-71, most of the artists fled. Manet attempted to persuade Morisot to leave too, telling her she wouldn’t like it if her legs were blown off. Manet and Degas joined the National Guard.

Guégan says it would have been “inconceivable” for a woman of Morisot’s social standing to succumb to desire

Morisot was jealous of Manet’s student Eva Gonzales, who he painted that year. On Moore’s advice, Hugh Lane later purchased the portrait for his Dublin gallery. Stung with jealousy, Morisot uncharitably claimed that Manet spent the whole war trying on his uniform. She nonetheless made her way to Manet’s studio to pose invitingly on his red sofa in Repose (1871, Rhode Island School of Design Museum).

Manet’s paintings make clear the attraction between himself and Morisot. But he was already married to Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch woman two years Manet’s senior who had taught piano to his brothers. Manet persuaded Morisot to marry his younger brother Eugène and became the godfather of their only child, a daughter called Julie. Degas would arrange Julie’s marriage to Ernest Rouart, his only student and the son of a wealthy industrialist and close friend of Degas.

One hundred and fifty years later, the Rouart family remain the keepers of the Morisot-Manet legacy, and continue to discourage speculation about an affair.

Guégan says it would have been “inconceivable” for a woman of Morisot’s social standing to succumb to desire. Others believe that passion inevitably overwhelms convention. When Manet died, Morisot wrote to her sister Edma, “Add to these almost physical emotions the long friendship that tied me to Édouard. Our shared past made up of youth and work has disintegrated, and you will understand that I am broken.”

Suzanne Manet did not admit that she was the mother, rather than the older sister, of her son Léon until he was 20 years old. The boy haunts Manet’s paintings, sometimes in shadow, as in The Balcony, sometimes in portraits such as Boy Carrying a Sword (1861, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867, Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon). Art historians speculate that Manet or his father Auguste was Léon’s father. Léon’s middle name was Édouard. Manet was listed on his birth certificate as godfather and left his estate to Suzanne and Léon.

Despite his nonconformism, Manet sought honours and believed his future could be ensured only through the approval of the official Salon.

A painting which shows Manet sprawled on a sofa while Suzanne plays the piano (1868-69, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art) is one of numerous portraits of Manet by Degas. Manet so disliked Degas’ rendition of his wife’s face that he slashed off the right side of the canvas. Degas was furious. He took the mutilated painting back and returned a still life which Manet had sent him to apologise for having broken a salad bowl.

Even Manet’s portraits of his wife, for example Madame Manet at the Piano (1868-1869, Musée d’Orsay) show Suzanne to have been plump and plain. De Nittis, the Italian painter, wrote of Suzanne Manet’s “goodness, simplicity, candour, and serenity, which nothing altered. One sensed in her slightest words the deep passion that she felt for her charming, enfant terrible of a husband.”

Despite his nonconformism, Manet sought honours and believed his future could be ensured only through the approval of the official Salon. Degas asked Manet to join the rebellious artists who were in 1874 preparing to show their work in what would become known as the first Impressionist exhibition. Manet declined. His notoriety was established and he probably did not want to lend his name to an undertaking with the lesser-known artists he had inspired with his daring. “I think Manet is more vain than intelligent,” Degas wrote.

Manet also advised Berthe Morisot against showing with the Impressionists. She ignored him and became the first woman Impressionist. Morisot would participate in seven of eight exhibitions, missing only one, when she gave birth to Julie.

The Impressionist exhibitions brought critical and financial success to Degas at last. Though Manet and Degas are often associated with the movement, neither was strictly speaking an Impressionist. Manet refused to show with them, and Degas shunned open-air painting and the light, quick brushstrokes so typical of Monet, Morisot, Pissarro and others.

The comparison between Manet and Degas feels somewhat unfair, since Degas’s most beautiful and best-known paintings, of ballet dancers, are not included in the exhibition on the grounds that Manet never painted ballerinas

Manet and Degas’s painting resembled each other’s more than anyone else’s. They accused one another of stealing themes. Both painted horse races, a pastime recently imported from Britain, cafes, brothels, and seascapes, for which there was great demand in the UK. Degas refused Manet’s invitation to travel to London in 1868 in the hope of finding a market for their work, as their friend James Tissot had.

In their early years, Manet’s paintings were clearly superior to those of Degas. His portrait of Émile Zola (1868, Musée d’Orsay) hangs alongside Degas’s Collector of Prints (1868, Metropolitan Museum of Art). The men in both paintings are seated at desks and stare into space. Degas’s subject looks dreary, whereas Zola’s handsome face, posture and expression seem to pull one into the canvas. Manet’s paintings always tell a story, and the copy of Olympia above the desk is Manet’s way of thanking the writer for his moral support through the scandal.

Manet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866) and Degas’s Young Woman with Ibis (1857-58, reworked in 1866-68, both from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) are signature paintings for the exhibition. Commissioners suggest that Manet’s juxtaposition of Victorine Meurent in a pale pink dressing gown with a parrot on a stand beside her may have inspired Degas to add two startling red ibises to his earlier, almost mystical picture of a woman draped in blue on a terrace above a middle eastern city.

Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873, Pau, Musée des Beaux-Arts) by Degas stands out as one of his best works. It was the only painting Degas brought back from America and brilliantly combines such features as the perspective of the large, pistachio-green room, men testing the quality of snowy white cotton – among them his top-hatted uncle in the foreground – the relaxed attitude of his brothers René and Achille, respectively reading a newspaper and leaning against an open inner window, and a still life of a basket full of letters on the floor.

The comparison between Manet and Degas feels somewhat unfair, since Degas’s most beautiful and best-known paintings, of ballet dancers, are not included in the exhibition on the grounds that Manet never painted ballerinas.

Degas’s works sometimes surpassed Manet’s. For example, Degas’s pastel of a woman sponging herself in a tub (1886, Musée d’Orsay) has a grace and beauty that are lacking in Manet’s pastel of the same theme (1878, Musée d’Orsay).

Absinthe (1875-76, Musée d’Orsay) by Degas shows a woman seated before the mind-numbing drink with slumped shoulders and a vacant look in her eyes, behind the zigzagging surface of cafe tables, perhaps accompanied by the man seated beside her. The grey and earth tones are harmonious and aesthetically pleasing, but the overall effect is of alienation and despair.

Plum Brandy (1877, Washington National Gallery), Manet’s portrait of a prostitute in the same cafe, smoking a cigarette and seated in front of what appears to be a scoop of ice cream, conveys nowhere near the pathos of Degas’s absinthe-drinker.

Manet and Degas had profoundly different attitudes towards women. Manet told Morisot that Degas was “incapable of loving a woman, of even telling her he does”. Women painted by Manet appear happy, alluring and in control of their lives. In Degas’s paintings, for example Interior (also known as The Rape 1868-69, Philadelphia Museum of Art), relations between men and women are tense and troubled.

The American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt maintained a long friendship with Degas, despite the unflattering portrait he painted of her. Unlike Manet and Morisot, there appears to have been no sexual attraction between them.

Degas was notoriously cranky. At age 43, he complained to a friend of the difficulty of living alone. “Here I am, growing old, in poor health, and almost penniless. I’ve made a thorough mess of my life on this earth,” he wrote.

The art dealer Ambroise Vollard recorded in his memoirs that when he invited Degas to dinner, the painter sent strict instructions: “No butter in my food. No flowers on the table. Very little light. You shall shut your cat away, and no one shall bring a dog. And if there are women, ask them not to wear perfume ... And we shall sit down at table at 7.30 on the dot.”

Manet, who loved life, died at age 51. Degas the curmudgeon lived on for another 34 years. Manet was “greater than we thought”, Degas said at Manet’s funeral. Encouraged by Berthe Morisot’s daughter Julie Manet, he bought eight paintings and 60 engravings by Manet with the intention of founding a museum.

Degas attempted to restore Manet’s largest painting, The Execution of Maximilian (1867-68, National Gallery, London).

The French ruler Napoleon III had chosen the hapless Habsburg to be emperor of Mexico. He was executed by Mexican republicans in 1867.

Manet, a lifelong republican, was outraged by the way Napoleon III abandoned Maximilian. The painting is modelled on Goya’s painting of the Third of May 1808 executions by the army of Napoleon I in Madrid.

In the last of several versions, Manet dressed Mexican republicans in French imperial uniforms and made the officer recharging his gun resemble Napoleon III. The painting was rejected by the Salon and Manet’s engravings of it were banned.

After Manet died, Suzanne and Léon cut the canvas into pieces because it had been damaged by salpeter, and in the hope of earning more money from the fragments. Degas purchased all the pieces he could find, and reassembled the mutilated painting.

The story had come full circle. In what Guégan calls “an act of piety”, a friendship once damaged by Manet’s slashing of a Degas painting was restored by Degas’ salvation of a slashed Manet painting.