Manet and Monet – one festive occasion, two paintings, two streets, two faces of modernism.
To commemorate the recent Exposition Universelle, an exuberant celebration of luxury and prosperity, the French government declared 30 June 1878 a national holiday. Called the Fête de la Paix, this day also marked France’s recovery from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1 and the divisive Paris Commune that followed. As well as demonstrating nationalist unity, the celebrations of 30 June were seen as an opportunity to strengthen the position of the Republican regime, still fragile after the major political confrontations of 1876/7. Two years later, July 14 was designated the French National Day.
From the second-floor window of his studio at no. 4 Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, Édouard Manet could see the Pont de l’Europe to the left. Straight ahead was the new Rue Mosnier (today, Rue de Berne), which he painted on various occasions. From there, he captured the holiday afternoon with his precise staccato brushwork in a patriotic harmony of the reds, whites, and blues waving from the windows. His 1878 oil painting ‘La Rue Mosnier aux drapeaux’ is a vivid evocation of Paris in the 1870s: the construction site on the left, where the street overlooks the railway cutting, records the enormous transformation of the city. The urban street, of course, was a principal subject of Impressionist painting. Manet was one of those artists who aimed to show not only the transformation the Industrial Age had brought about, but also how these changes affected society and individuals.
Claude Monet ‘La Rue Montorgueil’ depicts the same festival that had inspired Manet. Like its twin painting ‘Rue Saint-Denis’, it was painted on 30 June 1878. The Rue Montorgueil is a fashionable street in the Châtelet-Les Halles district lined with famous restaurants (including L’Escargot at no. 38, opened in 1875), cafés, bakeries (including La Maison Stohrer at no. 51, founded in 1730), fish stores, cheese, wine, and flower shops. Traditionally, it is one of the most vibrant streets in the heart of Paris. The painting produced by Monet supplies a more festive and upbeat image than Manet’s depiction of the ‘Rue Mosnier’. The painters approached their subject in a similar manner. Monet did not mix with the crowd either. Both images propose a distanced vision observed from above (Monet painted his view from a balcony, whilst Manet was seated as his window). Monet applied Impressionist techniques to the full. Its multitude of small strokes of colour, suggests the animation of the crowd and the wavering of flags in a sea of red, white and blue colours.
There is, however, a difference in depth. Monet is happy recording the festive nature of the impression, a colourful outdoor scene, sketched quickly and spontaneously in order to capture the enthusiasm of initial perception. The artist functions as reporter. The ‘Rue Montorgueil’ is a perfect example of Impressionist ‘forgetfulness’ in art. Radicalism is an aesthetic criterion, not a political one. Manet’s ‘Rue Mosnier’ on the other hand is a balanced reminder of past and present. Manet observed both elegant passengers in hansom cabs and, in the foreground, a worker carrying a ladder. The hunched amputee on crutches, who passes by fenced-in debris left from the construction of a new train track, is most likely a victim of the war. His presence is a painful memory of recent events. Manet’s sensitivity to the sacrifices made during those troubled years tempered his optimism in regard to national pride and new-found prosperity. His stance was a political one.
Monet versus Manet means ‘forgetful’ art versus ‘political’ art. The one approach emphasized that modernism merely meant a revolution in style and technique; the other is a reminder that the idea of avant-garde had its origins in the socio-political ideas of Saint-Simon (he was the first to use the military term as a cultural metaphor). Monet, like most Impressionists, may have veered away from the political side of the avant-garde, but Manet’s outlook as expressed in the ‘Rue Mosnier’ stands very much in that tradition.