NEW YORK — The 1865 Paris Salon was the site of grand scandale. “Olympia,” Édouard Manet’s painting of a nude courtesan lolling on a divan, forthrightly blasé alongside her Black maid and jittery cat, made its debut to a fit of rancour more suited to a WWE title bout. Patrons jabbed at it with their umbrellas in disgust; pushing and shoving ensued. Critics were just as savage; Olympia, with her steady gaze fixed not anywhere in the picture, but outward — at you — looked “dead of yellow fever and already arrived at an advanced state of decomposition,” wrote the critic Geronte, “like a corpse on the counters of the morgue.”
Whatever oxygen was left over from all the huffing and braying, the other 3,500 paintings in the Salon that year received precious little. Among them was Edgar Degas’s “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” his first ever accepted for the prestigious annual exhibition. It was exactly the kind of stilted history painting the Salon, the academic bastion of French art, had always favored; buried by the infamy of “Olympia,” the moment became for Degas — and practically everyone else — the departure point from which there would be no return. He would abandon history painting for good, and change course as a painter of modern life. A year later, his Salon entry was a frantic disaster scene of a fallen jockey trampled by horses.
The two paintings hang right across from each other at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the centerpiece of the sprawling but still somehow intimate “Manet/Degas,” opening Saturday. It’s an old-fashioned blockbuster replete with dozens of major paintings and an undeniable center of gravity. To be clear: This is a big BFD. “Olympia,” frank, blunt, and brazenly of its own time, is the ground zero of modern art; it’s left France only three times, including this, its first trip to North America.
It will be the draw for many, and there will be many: The show, which debuted at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, “Olympia’s” home, was among its top three best-attended ever. But try not to rush through the dozen other galleries here, chock-full of nuanced explorations of the long, affectionate, and sometimes fractious relationship between the twin towers of early French Modern painting. Degas admired Manet deeply; it’s telling, I think, that he made portraits of him almost a dozen times — most of which, remarkably, are here — while Manet never once depicted him.
Maybe another telling element is Degas’s “Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet,” 1868-69; Manet stiffly slumps into a sofa, his gaze drifting past the back of his wife Suzanne’s head; a quarter of the canvas is missing, including her face, the result of Manet slashing it with a knife. Unbothered, or even a little amused, Degas hung it in his studio as-is for more than 40 years.
“Manet/Degas” draws on the full scope of the intertwined lives of two artists foundational to their time, and, frankly, ours. In the 1850s, urban life was no subject for aspiring young painters. The two met at the Louvre in 1859, copying the Infanta Margarita from Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” The Met show, incredibly, has those very sketches (and a copper plate by Manet) to crystallize the moment on paper.
A string of side-by-side comparatives — classical studies of fabric, copies of history paintings by Eugène Delacroix — are a prelude to a smorgasbord of both men’s rich, sombre portraiture of their families. Here, we learn of another shared feature: Just two years apart in age, each to was born into a prominent family. Manet’s father was a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice; Degas’s, a wealthy banker. It made me wonder about the role of privilege in the shaping of culture, as relevant now as then.
But that’s another story. In this one, iconic pictures beckon from every wall with whiplash-inducing force. But, there are anchors: Manet’s first painting accepted at the Salon, his 1860 portrait of his parents “Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet,” is dark and sumptuous; the soft folds of his father’s coat are enveloped in shadow, a rumpled parallel with his face, pale and wizened by ill health. It holds down one end of the long gallery, with Degas’s dizzingly bright and masterful “Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family),” 1858-69, at the other. The cool, self-possessed gaze of the mother, an indomitable matriarch, has lived in my memory since I first saw it years ago.
In the next space, “Olympia” awaits. Hung on a freestanding wall, there’s no way around it, whether here or in art history itself. Old masters had made hay with reclining nudes for centuries without so much as the bat of an eye so long as the subject was safely buffered by history or myth; “Olympia” was modeled after Titian’s 1538 “Venus of Urbino.”
A nude goddess was one thing; a nude of a prostitute obviously of the present day and engaged with the viewer as though she’d strolled in from a brothel just down the street was something else. The painting became the gateway for generations of artists to abandon traditional subjects and embrace the dynamic, ramshackle urban worlds of their own lives.
From there, things diverged. Manet was never quite the rebel “Olympia” suggests. He craved popular acclaim and acceptance, remaining loyal to the Salon, and eventually softened into prettiness and fashionability. Degas, meanwhile, cut loose. In 1870 he decided he didn’t need the Salon at all; he founded a series of exhibitions in 1874 with Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot, among others, that would become the landmark Impressionist shows. (Manet never joined, despite his friend’s urgings.)
The key revelation of the Met show lies beyond that fork in the road: Degas, overshadowed to obscurity in that 1865 watershed, spent the rest of his career outpacing his friend in inventiveness and spontaneity. He was a gifted naturalist with a knack for capturing the energy of a moment; Manet, an astonishing painter every which way, hunkered into his mastery of posed, mannered stillness (fascinatingly, the show displays two of his paintings of the horse races Degas dragged him to; they’re stiffly compelling mostly in their strangeness, like broken speech in a second language).
Manet’s 1868 portrait of the writer Emile Zola — with a little postcard-size black and white “Olympia” pinned to the wall, natch — is unabashed chest-beating. Zola turns from the viewer, just so, book open in his lap; Manet includes a Japanese screen behind, rendered with spare perfection; little copies of Velazquez’s “The Drinkers,” and an Ukiyo Samurai are pinned above.
Luxuriously rich and deep, the painting exudes cosmopolitanism, Paris as a cultural crossroads, the epitome of a modern metropolis. You’re never more aware of the alchemy of the paint — Manet, maybe more than anyone else, was the medium’s master, and the show explodes with examples of it.
Degas, perhaps not quite so materially gifted — though to be clear, he’s astonishing — developed an insatiable drive to experiment with representation and form — hot to Manet’s impossible cool. The show is remarkable for breaking him out of his typical box, as a painter of racehorses (of which there are plenty here) and tutus (of which there’s not one). His wildly inventive “Young Woman With Ibis,” reworked around 1862 to incorporate vibrant tropical birds perched on her anxious shoulders like burning flames, hangs next to Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866,” a mysteriously chilly full-length portrait.
Manet sought beauty, where Degas could be pitiless. The latter’s “In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker),” 1875-76, of a drained-looking woman slumped at a table with a glass of liquor, is a harsh counterpoint to Manet’s “Plum Brandy,” 1877, a brightly pretty, only slightly morose rendition of much the same scene. There’s no accounting for taste, but I can’t help but think that Degas’s approach makes for better, more complicated art. It lives in the world unsparingly, truth before beauty. I left the show more captivated with Degas than I’d ever been, freshly fascinated by his sharp and often unforgiving view.
Manet’s legacy owes much to him; after his death in 1883 from syphilis at just 51, Degas acquired more than 80 of his works — including many in this show — and helped buy “Olympia” for the French state. But what does Degas owe to Manet, besides everything? Call it a debt, repaid. In the ledger of art history, the books balance.
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave., New York. Sept. 24 – Jan. 7. www.metmuseum.org, 212-535-7710.