Edouard Manet (1832-1883) once said that "a painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds..." The exhibition, "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings," now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, demonstrates the truth of Manet's words -- at least as far as his own painting goes.
The exhibition of 58 works includes 39 paintings, and first appeared last fall at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, where it was somewhat larger by some 20 works. The show is well worth a pilgrimage to Baltimore, its only North American venue. The Walters is to be complimented for snagging this exhibition, especially with its main building in the midst of a renovation.
About one fifth of Manet's output is devoted to still-lifes. That may seem a bit odd at first glance, but consider how important a role they play in just two of Manet's famous works -- Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) with its heap of clothes and basket of goodies in the foreground, and Olympia, with its gorgeous bouquet. And remember his admiration and imitation of Dutch and Spanish paintings.
From Manet's earliest works with still-lifes, like Young Man with Cherries (1858) and his first true still-life painting, Oysters (1862), the artist relished the unstill life that was his true subject. His sensibility was quite different from that of his slightly younger more austere colleague Cézanne, who learned a lot from Manet's apple paintings.
One extraordinary work that did come to Baltimore is Manet's Portrait of Emile Zola (1868). The author is shown hemmed in by walls and a desk covered with art and argument, much of it referring directly to Manet himself, whom Zola championed. Another tribute from Manet, but on a smaller scale, is Violets and Fan (1872), with a note in which can be read "à Mlle Berthe." He presented the oil to Berthe Morisot, a painter who became his sister-in-law, after she had modeled for him wearing a corsage of violets.
Deliciously complex, both figuratively and literally, are several works featuring fish or fruit. The damask tablecloth in Still Life with Melons and Peaches (1866), for example, positively glows.
Two stunning late works, Oysters and Champagne Bucket (1876-7) from a private collection with its shimmering whites, silvers, and grays, and Still Life with Brioche (1880), with a cat's head emerging from the black background, are high points of the show.
From around 1880 through the last three years of his life, unable to move around much as his health deteriorated from syphilis, Manet wrote many letters illustrated with small watercolors. The gracefully written notes are accompanied by still lifes of a single flower or a small group of flowers, fruits, nuts or sometimes a piece of female apparel.
Manet also painted many smaller fruit and flower works, often inspired by gifts of these luxuries from a large circle of friends. An impastoed vase of White Lilacs gets bravura treatment, while a small Moss Roses in a Vase is more demure and poignant with its single flower left out of the water to die.
The exhibition was organized by the American Federation of Arts. It opened on Jan. 28 and runs through Apr. 22, 2001, at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. Admission is by timed ticket, so reserve in advance. For more info, call 1-866-466-2638.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.