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Friends, Rivals, Mutuals: The Enigmatic Relationship of Manet and Degas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Manet/Degas, explores the enigmatic relationship between the two famous artists by presenting their thematically similar artworks side by side.

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A diagonal split divides the entrance wall in half, with two names—Manet/Degas—and corresponding self-portraits hung on either side. This head-to-head dramatic entrance hints at a relationship consisting of intense rivalry, but the exhibition reveals that the dynamic between the two artists extended far deeper than that. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Manet/Degas, explores the enigmatic relationship between the two by presenting their thematically similar artworks side by side.

Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, two extremely influential French painters of the 19th century, are best known as leading figures of Impressionism: a 19th-century art movement that was characterized by unblended, small brush strokes; open composition; and the accurate depiction of natural light. The artists were born two years apart (Manet in 1832 and Degas in 1834) and were both the eldest sons of wealthy French bourgeois families. Before their first encounter in a gallery at the Louvre, they were both educated in established art schools, where they were taught classical painting methods. During this time, fine art was especially rigid, and as students, Manet and Degas were trained to conform to the conventions of the artistic world. As shown throughout the exhibition, the artists continued traditional practices by making renditions of classic works.

In the first few years of their friendship, Manet and Degas became so close that they showed up in each other’s artworks and were involved in each other’s family lives. In Monsieur and Madame Édouard (1868), Degas captures the casual intimacy of Manet and Manet’s wife after their evenings together. The painting depicts Manet slouched on a couch with one leg propped up under his shoulder, on which he is leaning his face. His wife sits next to him playing the piano. Manet’s expression is contemplative as he peers into the distance. Though the colors are dull and earthy—muted greens, browns, and grays—Degas perfectly depicts the emotions of the characters, his use of shading creating a harmonious, peaceful atmosphere. This painting was gifted to Manet by Degas, but for unknown reasons, Manet slashed the right-hand side of the canvas. The painting itself still has this part missing, a frank symbol of the two’s eccentric relationship.

During the late-19th century, the Salon was an annual exhibition for emerging artists sponsored by the French government. It was the main arena to attract critics and collectors, providing a prime opportunity for budding artists to be discovered. Like many other artists during the time, Manet and Degas submitted their works to the Salon. Many of their works went widely unrecognized, but in 1865, Manet submitted Olympia (1863), which generated a strong response and mixed reviews because of its unconventional and provocative nature. This painting was an adaptation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), which depicts the naked goddess Venus. Though Venus is naked, this painting was widely accepted because of symbols suggesting her purity and fidelity. The similar orientations of the figures and other characters (such as the maids and house pets) draw a direct parallel, but instead of an innocent goddess, Olympia depicts a naked prostitute. She looks directly at the viewers with an expression critiqued as grossly provocative. Manet utilizes alluring and seductive colors to convey the courtesan’s sensuality, with the dark green velvet draperies and gold jewelry and shoes creating a stark contrast with the prostitute’s pale, bare skin. The widespread discourse that surrounded Manet’s Olympia stood in direct contrast to Degas’s frequent rejection by the Salon, furthering the divisions between the two and signifying the divergence of their artistic careers.

Simultaneously, Degas had been working on a historical painting of Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1865), but this, in contrast, went unnoticed. With Manet’s influence, Degas started to shift his focus away from historical works and the classical style. He abandoned the Salon altogether, and started to help set up and submit artworks to new up-and-coming independent art shows—the first Impressionist exhibitions. These new exhibitions, which consisted of the works of Degas and other forefront Impressionist leaders like Claude Monet and Camile Pissaro, were not well accepted and were critiqued for their vulgar usage of color and illegible brushstrokes. However, this radical change allowed Degas’s works to blossom, and in 1874, Degas showcased his first painting, The Dancing Class. This painting portrays a dance class from the Paris Opéra with 10 girls and an accompanying musician. Despite its muted, mild color palette, Degas manages to capture the dancers as lively and youthful through their candid and spontaneous physical orientations. He also employs a variety of brushstrokes, ranging from short and brief to more controlled. Collectively, these contribute to the painting’s sensation of dynamic movement. This new subject matter of ballerinas and performers would become a largely defining characteristic of Degas’s works as he continued to drive the Impressionist movement forward. 

The exhibition simultaneously develops Degas’s and Manet’s artistic and daily lives. As the artists grew older, their lives became even more similar: they had the same circle of friends, pursued similar pastimes (such as horse racing), went on vacation together, and served as members of the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The exhibition places thematically similar artworks side by side and compares and contrasts their different technical styles. One part of the gallery compares two paintings depicting the same model, actress Ellen Andreé, in a café setting. Degas’s work In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-1876) paints Andreé in a dispirited and silent environment sitting next to a man smoking a pipe who has the same lonely and empty expression due to the effects of absinthe. The subjects are not at the center of the painting but are instead positioned in the top right corner. To enhance the bleak atmosphere, Degas utilizes understated earthy browns, greens, and grays in addition to a dark shadow trailing the two figures. Like his other paintings, he is inconsistent with his use of brush strokes, resulting in gloomy, fuzzy subjects. Manet’s painting Plum Brandy (1877), on the other hand, utilizes a larger color palette, giving Andreé’s face a rosier complexion. She wears a pale pink dress, sitting on a dark maroon seat with a gold and livid (medium blue-gray color) background wall. However, the painting still evokes a feeling of emptiness as she sits in a lethargic pose similar to that in Degas’s portrayal. She holds a cigarette and a plum brandy sits in front of her, but her gaze looks beyond with an empty, melancholic facial expression. Here, Manet does not use Impressionist-esque brushstrokes, instead employing blended strokes and more defined contours. The prime differences exemplified by these two paintings are Manet’s broad planes of color with a stronger sense of composition and Degas’s focus on the accurate usage of light through dynamic brushstrokes.

Manet’s and Degas’s symbiotic relationship continuously pushed them to reach their maximum potential and had a profound and transformative impact on the art world. Both artists broke from academic conventions by creating new approaches to technique, composition, and subject matter. With their radical legacy, the two prompted a shift in artistic criticism from the public, fostering a more open discourse. The intertwined journeys of Manet and Degas left an enduring legacy that continues to support the ever-evolving world of art.