“Through a parallel exploration of their life and careers, presenting their work in direct juxtaposition, Manet/Degas reveals the commonalities and divergences among their artistic goals and approaches.”
Manet/Degas is the lavishly illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany a special collection on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from September 2023 to January 2024. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musées d’Orsay and de l’Orangerie in Paris, Manet/Degas is the first exhibit to showcase the personal and professional relationship between Édouard Manet (1832–1883) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917), two of 19th century France’s most significant artists.
The Manet/Degas exhibition, which unites over 160 paintings and sketches curated from museum collections across 11 countries and several private collections, explores “one of the most significant artistic dialogues in modern art history.” Manet and Degas had a complex relationship, as they were at various times friends, rivals, and antagonists to each other. As artistic renegades of their era, both pushed the boundaries of existing French painting styles. From similar upper middle-class backgrounds, they had different personalities and temperaments that reflected themselves in distinct styles, views, and approaches to life and art. While the two rarely worked alongside each other, they nevertheless took an interest in each other’s art, which often provided sources of inspiration for their own works.
The Manet/Degas exhibition catalog, attributed to Stephan Wolohojian and Ashley E. Dunn, includes contributions from Stéphane Guégan, Denise Murrell, Haley S. Pierce, Isolde Pludermacher, and Samuel Rodary. The frontmatter consists of a foreword from Max Hollein, director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; acknowledgements; and a list of lenders to the special exhibition.
In the introduction, Wolohojian and Dunn note that Manet and Degas had “one of the most significant artistic dialogues in the genesis of modern art.” This project, “the first to attempt to realize their artistic conversation in three dimensions,” enables us to assess “how these major artists defined themselves with and against each other.” The introduction is followed by five academic essays from different contributors on Manet and Degas.
The first essay is Dunn’s “Manet and Degas Meet: Encounters in Etching.” Both artists honed their craft by copying masterpieces located in the Musée de Louvre. The two met there in a gallery in front of the great 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa. Dunn compares the etchings both made of this painting as a springboard to relate Manet’s and Degas’s approaches to etching and print making. Both generated “highly original and distinctive printed oeuvres.” They continued to experiment with graphic reproduction over time, and the “act of translating from one medium into another helped both . . . to see and think differently, and to imagine new possibilities out of old efforts.”
In the second essay, “Political Sensibilities: Manet and Degas on Both Sides of the Atlantic,” Pludermacher examines how “the artists’ divergent connection to politics shed light on their own relationship.” The republican Manet frequently created artistic works based on political events that impacted him, whereas the more politically conservative Degas generally refrained from creating public works reflecting current events. During the artists’ early friendship in the 1860s, the United States was engulfed in the Civil War (1861–1865) and political maneuvers in Mexico resulted Emperor Maximilian’s execution (1867). Both influenced works from Manet. Degas was impacted by the Civil War—he was related on his mother’s side to slave holders and members of the Confederacy—but this did not lead to artistic inspiration.
However, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871), both found a common cause. The Prussian invasion prompted many artists to flee Paris, but Manet and Degas remained, defending the city as National Guard members. This conflict left subtle traces in Degas’s work, while Manet produced several bold prints in response.
In the subsequent essay, “Manet, Degas, and the Demi-monde of Alexandre Dumas Fils,” Murrell explores how the demi-monde, a term and concept developed by the writer Alexandre Dumas fils (1824–1895), influenced Manet’s and Degas’s art. As a result, we see how art and literature influence each other. Dumas fils—son of literary giant Alexandre Dumas père, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo—became a highly respected man of letters in France. Although best known for his 1848 novel The Lady of the Camellias (loosely based on his own affair with the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis and which was adapted into Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La traviata), Dumas fils was an accomplished and prodigious novelist and playwright.
His 1855 pay, Le Demi-monde, formally introduced the idea of a “half-world,” or a “liminal space that existed at the intersection of respectability and disrepute within the social and artistic milieu of nineteenth-century Paris.” Many of the female characters in the literary works of Dumas fils operate in the demi-monde. He was not unfamiliar with the concept, for despite his high cultural status, his paternal grandfather was the son of a Norman nobleman and an Afro-Caribbean enslaved woman. As a result, he (like his father) was simultaneously denigrated in some circles and socially censured because of his mixed racial heritage. Furthermore, Dumas fils was born illegitimate, a stigma that plagued him throughout his life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the protagonists in the works of both Dumas père and Dumas fils are often social outsiders.
Both Manet and Degas stretched the definition of portraiture, introducing ambiguities and exploring its narrative possibilities by representing a diverse array of individuals. As a result, both depicted women of color in their art, which “manifested the racial anxiety of Parisian bourgeois society” during French imperialism as well as “visualized the duality and ambiguity implicit in Dumas’s characterization of the demi-monde.” However, the two had differing approaches due to their contrasting political and cultural views.
In her essay, Murrell focuses on Manet’s 1860s sketches and portrait of Jeanne Duval, a biracial actress and mistress of his friend, writer Charles Baudelaire. Manet had close relationships with many of the great French literary figures of his era, including Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Mallarmé. These associations reveal themselves in his portraiture. In Murrell’s view, Manet’s painting of Duval “conveys a direct visualization of the duality inherent in Dumas’s intended meaning of demi-monde,” even if the intentionality of doing so is hard to ascertain, despite Manet and Dumas fils being acquaintances. She also discusses in detail Manet’s famous painting Olympia (1863), which was inspired by the name of the rival to the courtesan protagonist in Dumas’s The Lady of the Camelias.
While Degas’s early paintings demonstrate an interest in literature, his work did not reveal personal connections until later. Murrell examines Degas’s art connected to the demi-monde, which was subtly influenced by his maternal family connections to the American South, the Confederacy, and slavery. In particular, she looks at some of his 1870s work depicting performers at the Cirque Fernando. The two artists’ works convey differing gender dynamics. Manet’s paintings reveal women often expressing “a certain self-possession through their pose and gaze.” In contrast, Degas frequently “crafted scenes fraught with tension and ambiguity.”
In the fourth essay, “Presence of Absence: Degas, Manet, Valéry,” Guégan focuses on Paul Valéry’s 1936 book, Degas Dance Drawing. In his ruminations on Degas, Valéry included Manet, suggesting that without him and his art, it would be impossible to understand Degas’s artistic evolution. Therefore, while ostensibly about Degas, it makes “a deep exploration and comparison of the two painters.”
In the final essay, “Degas, After Manet,” Wolohojian explores how Manet’s premature death in 1883 impacted Degas. Degas participated in commemorations to unite their artistic circle, including an 1885 memorial banquet and Claude Monet’s efforts to raise funds to acquire Manet’s Olympia for the French government. Degas’s admiration for Manet continued despite the latter’s passing, as Degas added several of Manet’s works to his personal art collection of distinguished painters (which he had hoped of turning into a museum).
Much of the remaining portion of Manet/Degas consists of plates reproducing high-quality images of the art on display in the special exhibit. The plates, following the exhibit’s arrangement, present Manet’s and Degas’s works across several themes that span their careers: “An Enigmatic Relationship,” “Artistic Origins: Study, Copy, Create,” “Overlapping Networks,” “Challenging Genres,” “Modern Subjects,” “From One War to Another,” and “Degas Collects Manet.”
The plates are followed by a useful chronology of the two artists’ lives by Rodary and Pierce. The endmatter is comprised of a list of works in the special exhibition, endnotes, a selected bibliography, an index, and photograph credits.
Through a parallel exploration of their life and careers, presenting their work in direct juxtaposition, Manet/Degas reveals the commonalities and divergences among their artistic goals and approaches. The exhibit and its catalog’s objective, therefore, is to present Manet’s and Degas’s work in dialogue with each other in the context of the family relationships, friendships, and intellectual circles that influenced them. In so doing, it enriches our understanding of key developments in 19th century French painting and the origins of modern art.