- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Edouard Manet's "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)" shocked 1860s Paris with its nude woman picnicking outdoors with two fully clothed men.

Manet's radical flattening of figures through a hard photographic kind of light made him one of the most controversial, and later admired, of the French impressionists. His imaging of impersonal, non-idealized subjects gave him great popularity then and now. He achieved an in-your-face immediacy by bringing figures right up to the picture plane.

The exhibit "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings" at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is another affirmation of his appeal. The show is the first major survey of his devotion to a subject that 17th-century academicians relegated to the lowest rung of the art ladder.

Manet had a special regard for still lifes and said, "A painter can say everything with flowers, fruits, vegetables, and even clouds."

Museums know the French impressionists attract crowds and that Manet (1832-1883) draws some of the biggest. The National Gallery of Art featured his work in the shows "Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare" in 1998 and "The Impressionists at Argenteuil" last year.

Shows at the Phillips Collection — "Impressionists on the Seine, a Celebration of Renoir's 'Luncheon of the Boating Party' (1996)," "Degas to Matisse: Impressionist and Modern Masterworks From the Detroit Institute of Arts" (2000), "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips" (1999), among others — showed Manet again and again. The Baltimore Museum of Art's "Faces of Impressionism: Portraits From American Collections" in 1999 also displayed his work.

Is another Manet show necessary, considering the painter's extensive exposure in the Washington-Baltimore area? Are Manet's still lifes as fascinating as his men and women?

No, but they cast another kind of light on the artist's painterly concerns. The show features 55 works painted from 1862 to 1883. Thirty-seven are oils; the rest are works on paper. Among the most spontaneous are the flowers and fruit that decorate his many letters to female friends.

Manet was working in the "set-table" tradition that began in the Netherlands in the early 16th century and included both humble meals and banquets. "The Dutch 'still' (motionless) 'leven' (nature) paintings employed a limited, somewhat somber palette with the table placed in an undefined space," one exhibit label says.

Manet's still lifes lack the complexity of his figures. Smallish and unprepossessing, the peaches, melons, apples, grapes, oranges and strawberries are roughly brushed images.

So are Manet's numerous, rather unappetizing paintings of fish. With these, he looks to the Dutch 17th-century tradition of Abraham Mignon's "Still Life With Fruit, Fish, and a Nest" (circa 1675), which is displayed in the National Gallery of Art.

He did not seek to emulate the tradition's beauty but rather its more humble subjects.

The sparely painted "Oysters" of 1862 is Manet's earliest still life. His composition is more complex in "Fish and Oyster, or Still Life With Fish" (1864). He gathered a variety of fish, a copper pot, a lemon and knife, and a white hanging tablecloth.

Slime escapes from the mouth of the large fish. A dead eel forms an S-shape near it. Manet seemed to delight in painting the slippery, slithering qualities of eels here and in other pictures.

He is more gentle in his rendering of flowers, and he painted six floral still lifes in the 1860s. The artist concentrated on his favorite peonies, which he placed in vases or laid on tables.

"Peonies and Pruning Shears, or Branch of White Peonies With Pruning Shears" (1864) shows the flowers after cutting. "Cut flowers were traditionally regarded as symbols of the fragility of life and the fleeting nature of beauty," the exhibit label says.

Manet turned to flowers late in his life when he was too weak to tackle larger, more complex canvases. In the 1880s, when he was dying of what may have been syphilis, the artist painted lifelike, vibrant bouquets of roses, pinks, clematis, roses, peonies and lilacs.

Twenty of the 55 still lifes in the exhibition depict floral bouquets.

The curators may have stretched the truth, however, in saying that still lifes — he painted 80 — make up one-fifth of his output.

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The still lifes are best when coupled with humans. The most arresting works in the exhibit — "Portrait of Theodore Duret" (1868), "Julie Manet on the Watering Can" (1880) and "Portrait of Emile Zola" (1868) — gain power through Manet's synergist linking of objects and people.

Manet painted the art critic Duret in 1868. Duret initially had given glowing reviews to Manet's work, but his support lessened in 1867. He criticized the artist for "painting far too hastily."

Manet apparently decided to get even with his small portrait of Duret. He painted the critic — whom he called "the last of the dandies" — in a three-piece suit and bowler with a carefully cropped beard. Duret holds gloves and a cane and looks directly out at the viewer.

The objects on and near a small table set near Duret indicate their relationship. Manet had thrown a book under the table, probably referring to Duret's negative criticisms.

Lemons stood for "unfaithful friend," and the one placed in the glass jar seems to refer to that.

Consider also Manet's portrait of the writer Zola that same year. Zola admired Manet and wrote that the artist's paintings would hang in the Louvre one day.

The painter seated Zola in his studio. Manet surrounded Zola with books and journals piled on the desk. Hung on the background wall is a version of "Olympia," the painter's great work of 1863; "Los Borrachos," an engraving by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, the Spanish painter who influenced the early works of Manet; and Kuniaki II's print of a sumo wrestler.

The still-life objects tell much about Manet but do not replace the focus on Zola. Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) also placed figures in settings with related objects.

Visitors to the 1995 Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art will remember "Woman Holding a Balance" (circa 1664). The balance, letter, water pitcher and pearl necklace imply concerns such as love and spiritual purity. Vermeer also set a map and globe in his painting of "The Geographer." As with Manet's works, the accompanying objects are extensions of the figures.

The Walters missed an opportunity to enhance the show. Its staff could have placed a small color reproduction of "Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets" next to the "Violets and Fan," an exquisite study of tiny flowers, as was done in the catalog. Likewise, with "Hat and Guitar" (1862): A color reproduction of a Velazquez should be added.

The exhibit was a good idea and has the makings of an interesting show. But the museum made it boring by limiting the works to still lifes.WHAT: "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings"WHERE: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., BaltimoreWHEN: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, until 8 p.m. April 5, 7, 14 and 21TICKETS: $10 adults, $8 for those 18 to 25 years old and senior citizens, $5.50 for children 6 to 17 and free for those younger than 6PHONE: 866/466-2638 or order on line at www.museumtix.com

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