These days, nobody gives much thought to the idea of artistic practice fitting into an overriding narrative of historical progress. The current scene is liberating if shapeless, as artists work from a Greek diner–size menu of options—one that would scarcely have been possible were it not for the 100-year period, beginning in the mid-19th century, when modernity birthed the tropes in use today. And no single artist was arguably as responsible for setting modern art in motion than Édouard Manet.
Manet (1832–1883) was born well-off in Paris to a mother of royal blood and a father who was a respected jurist. From childhood he harbored artistic ambitions, encouraged by an uncle who frequently took to him to the Louvre. By 13, Manet was taking drawing classes, though his father had other ideas for his son’s career, forcing him at one point into an abortive attempt to join the French Navy.
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Manet père subsequently became resigned to his son’s aspirations, and Manet began formal training under the history painter Thomas Couture. He also traveled around Europe imbibing Titian, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez, who was an especially important influence along with another Spanish painter, Goya.
Following in the steps of Gustave Courbet, Manet began as a realist, but his loose brushwork, compositional simplicity, and abrupt tonal transitions drew the ire of critics and the French Academy which mounted the annual Salons. When he started to subvert art-historical conventions to the point of near parody, his trajectory as Modernism’s first great apostate was set in motion. Here are five essential paintings tracking his evolution, along with where you can find them.