Manet or Monet: A Contrast in Styles

Manet and Monet are two highly important, similarly named French artists who deliberately moved away from the classical Old Masters to create their own individual styles. They were distinctly different in their approach, but even now, nearly a century after Monet’s passing, the artists are confusing to some, simply because of their surnames. There are ways to immediately tell them apart, however. It starts with their choice of subjects.

The art world of the early 19th century centered on expressive, lifelike formal portraits; colorful and realistic landscapes; and the charm of generic fruits and flowers, all reminiscent of the great Old Masters. They were wonderfully arranged in their composition, character, detail and style; and if a painter followed this approach, he or she could expect their paintings to be exhibited – the all-important first step toward garnering public and critical success.

This 1863 Manet painting is a clear departure from the Old Masters, as it depicts two nude women and two clothed men having lunch in a wooded field near a spring. The artwork caused quite the stir when it was exhibited in the year of its creation. Public domain image courtesy of Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons

By 1856, the French painter Édouard Manet moved away from the conventional approach and instead began painting real workaday people, without necessarily focusing on light, detail or abundant color. He used loose brush strokes in contrasting darker colors, particularly black. Luncheon on the Grass, for example, featured two nude women picnicking with two fully clothed men along a wooded stream. The subject matter was quite unconventional – even shocking – for its time. Manet would continue painting beggars and people along the street exactly as he saw them, not as the Old Masters wished them to be. The Spanish Singer, an 1860 oil portrait of a guitar-playing singer, was his first painting that drew acclaim. Its “slapdash,” avant-garde painting style appealed to a younger generation.

Edouard Manet’s signature on an ink and gouache on paper titled ‘The Old Musician’ appears in the lower righthand corner and reads, simply, ‘Manet.’ Image courtesy: Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

With his unconventional approach to painting in which he depicted real people in everyday situations, Manet was able to influence other artistic movements, especially Impressionism.

One of the leading Impressionists of the period was the Parisian-based artist Claude Monet. He took his inspiration from Manet, leaving behind the Old Masters’ obsession for detail, and instead placed an emphasis on natural color and light. In fact, many of Monet’s paintings repeat the same subject, such as The Haystack – there are 25 versions of it, each painted in different light from dusk to dawn, in different seasons reflecting their own shaded nuances.

Monet’s 1874 oil painting Impression, Sunrise was not well received, one art critic believing it unfinished who derisively called it impressionism for its broad strokes depicting rowboats in the port of La Havre either at dawn or dusk and Impressionism became the name of an entire new movement. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important paintings by Monet was his Impression: Sunrise, painted in 1873. Executed in muted colors, it is described as a rather hazy image of several rowboats in the French port of La Havre, depicted either at dusk or dawn (it isn’t known which), with broad strokes and the light of an orange sun casting lighted shadows along the water. An art critic derisively named Monet’s “unfinished” painting as “impressionism,” and thus began a completely new art movement.

Claude Monet usually added his signature in full to the lower lefthand corner of his paintings. An example of his signature is shown here and comes from a handwritten letter dated 1908. Image courtesy: University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

While both Manet and Monet were contemporaries in the French painting community of the late 19th century, Manet was older by eight years and established as an artist by the time Monet began painting seriously by 1865.  Each widely exhibited their paintings in salons – even next to each other on such occasions where artworks were displayed alphabetically by the artist’s surname. If pressed, Manet preferred not to be considered an Impressionist, and some art scholars would agree. Given a choice, he would not participate in exhibitions with other Impressionist artists. Monet, on the other hand, enthusiastically embraced the new art movement and had no problem with his paintings being described as “impressions.”

The differences were quite clear between the two Parisian-based artists. They were not necessarily spending time within the same artistic circles, since they painted differently. Manet worked primarily in a studio with models. Often he would choose black as the background color for his artworks.

Monet, like all Impressionist painters, primarily worked outdoors – en plein air – creating landscapes relatively quickly.  Brighter colors in quick brush strokes tended to blend well together, with rowboats or even people rendered as shadows or shapes rather than being clearly defined and detailed. Nearly 90% of all of Monet’s paintings were landscapes.

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), Water Lilies, 1919. Oil on canvas; 39 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. (101 x 200 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Walter H and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H and Leonore Annenberg, 1998, Bequest of Walter H Annenberg, 2002 (1998.325.2). Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

In short, Manet primarily painted everyday people while Monet painted natural landscapes with a diffusion of light and color. Of course, to quickly tell the difference, you could just as easily look at the painted signatures at the base of each painting, too.

The period of Impressionism lasted until about 1890 or so, when the movement gained more of an acceptance within the art world. Manet didn’t participate within the Impressionist movement itself, preferring to exhibit on his own with little recognition during his lifetime. He died at 51 in 1883 from syphilis. Monet, on the other hand, lived to the age of 86, with his paintings selling rather well until his death in 1926.

Other Impressionist artists who rose to prominence after Monet were Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley and others whose works embody the broad strokes and muted colors of everyday life, giving us an impression of what an artist sees and feels. It is the shifting light, the hazy unfinished reality that provide our own portrait of everyday life.

So, are the Impressionists still sought after at auction? Yes, but some observers opine that Impressionist artworks which haven’t already joined the collections of museums or institutions are the less-appealing examples, explaining why they haven’t reached the top tier of recent market sales. That’s not to say that there isn’t enthusiasm for early Impressionist works at auction – that would not be a fair comment – but as the pioneers of the movement were aware, there will always be new artists and genres to excite collectors.