"Manet-Degas" exhibition: 4 paintings not to be missed

"There is mystery in this story!" exclaims Stéphane Guégan at the entrance to the splendid Manet-Degas exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, of which he is, with Isolde Pludermacher, the curator - in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of New York

"Manet-Degas" exhibition: 4 paintings not to be missed

"There is mystery in this story!" exclaims Stéphane Guégan at the entrance to the splendid Manet-Degas exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, of which he is, with Isolde Pludermacher, the curator - in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The mystery of course lies in the true nature of the relationship between the two geniuses, each of whom can claim the title of father of modern art.

Friendship, rivalry, jealousy, emulation? One word won't be enough! But we will have some reading keys by stopping in front of four essential paintings of the route, which are also four works of breathtaking beauty.

Édouard Manet and his wife, by Edgar Degas, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Japan

"This painting dates from 1868-1869, a time when the two painters were close: Manet even invited Degas to accompany him to London to test the waters of the English market. Music is an important element. The friendship of the artists was woven over musical evenings at the Morisot's, at the Stevens'... Suzanne, Manet's wife, was first the piano teacher of the Manet brothers before marrying Édouard in 1863. It is as a token of friendship that Degas painted this painting where we see Suzanne at her keyboard and Manet enjoying the music. The reference to Dutch iconography is clear, like a harmony of choirs around a keyboard. Suzanne is from the Netherlands, Degas must have thought that this iconography would suit him. However, the physical appearance he gives to Suzanne greatly displeases Manet, who decides to mutilate the painting. Degas then enters into one of those black rages of which he was accustomed, he recovers the painting and restores to Manet a still life, perhaps this basket of nuts that we are exhibiting right next to it. So here is a painting that leaves us with the enigma of a first open conflict. Degas, already a realist, may have gone very far in the accuracy of the portrayal of Suzanne. Manet, on the contrary, in his own painting of his wife at the piano, is more poetic, he suggests the charm, the particular beauty of Suzanne. Considering the rules of the time, this marriage is almost a downgrade, Manet had to overcome many conventions. Hence no doubt his susceptibility – which Baudelaire mentions in his correspondence. This says two things: that Manet is very attached to Suzanne and to the public image that can be given of her, and that Degas is already able to go very far in the realism of the portrait. »

The Rest, by Edouard Manet. Bequest of Mrs. Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt Gerry, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, USA

"What an exceptional piece of work! This painting dates from 1870. It echoes the famous Balcony where Manet represented his future sister-in-law, a woman he was very close to, a great painter, Berthe Morisot. Here, the face is less hard, less tense than in Le Balcon where Berthe was – the word is hers – “a femme fatale”. We are in an interior with a Japanese print in the background. Manet, without abandoning the criteria of realistic painting, takes us into the reverie of this young woman. It is also an opportunity to show how the women in her circle were able, thanks to the Second Empire, to define an existence which is not quite that prescribed by the code of bourgeois life. A freer, more assertive existence... so much so that this painting was perceived at the time, at the 1873 Salon where it was exhibited, as slightly indecent. This theme of rest is weighted with suspicion. And then the young woman slides towards us instead of being wedged into the couch. Look at those almost unfinished, very tapered hands. Here, the fan is not justified by the scene, but it is a poetic accessory. It is an ode to the modern, profound and poetic young woman. »

Sea Baths, Little Girl Combed by Her Maid, by Edgar Degas. The National Gallery (UK, London)

“This painting allows the exhibition to reflect on the Impressionist destiny of the two artists. Manet seems – by his painting, his subjects, his clarity – to announce the evolution of the cadets – Monet, Renoir, Pissarro. Degas, him, becomes one of the central actors of the impressionism, but by hardly modifying his formal language, even whereas he exposes his pastels and his paintings in the middle of the work of the impressionists. At the end of the 1860s, Manet and Degas saw each other a lot, including in the north of France, on the places of the bourgeois resort. They even plan to sell their "products" on the London market where there is interest in these views of seaside towns. Degas allowed himself to be invited by the Morisots to go and produce this type of image in the wake of the beaches of Boudin, but showing seaside customs in a different way. This painting from the National Gallery is a real masterpiece, with this beautiful theme of long hair (a theme that will recur a lot in Degas' late pastels), expressed with great gentleness in the central scene. . We observe all around more incongruous, dissonant notes: these children who have just been forced to bath in the sea (at the time, very cold baths were recommended because they believed it was good for the health), the meeting of a woman with an umbrella and a gentleman with his dog… This is what Duranty calls “social chiaroscuro”. In Degas, there is always a note that disturbs the narration, the psychological climate, a reminder of the fact that modern life is on the side of the unexpected, of heterogeneity. »

Nana, by Édouard Manet. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

"It is from L'Assommoir that Manet invents this figure of Nana which is only potentially in Zola's novel. Manet will insist to journalists to say that he is not behind the text, on the contrary. He is already projecting himself into what Nana is going to become, when Zola finally devotes a novel to her. This painting reveals the artist's debt to a whole 18th century imagery. It starts with the accessories, some of which belonged to him (like some collectors of Impressionism, he went so far as to buy rock furniture). These curves and counter-curves are associated plastically with the central figure. We find this sovereign, immodest feminine allure, which he knew how to exploit magnificently in Olympia in 1865. Nana is dressed only in her underwear, she is shown in her toilet like a portrait of Pompadour. The Japanese screen with this strange bird, and then the extinguished candles indicate that we are at a courtesan. The gaze is magnificent, it makes the spectator its accomplice at the expense of the male character who is cut off by the canvas, placed in an uncomfortable and humorous situation. He is not the dominant male dear to our time, but a figure dominated by the beauty of Nana. The balance of power is reversed, it is the woman who dictates the circulation of desire. »