At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manet and Degas Go Head to Head

Installation view of Manet/Degas, on view September 24, 2023–January 7, 2024 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, Courtesy of The Met
Installation view of Manet/Degas, on view September 24, 2023–January 7, 2024 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
See How the Friendship and Rivalry of These Masterful Artists Inspired Their Work

See How the Friendship and Rivalry of These Masterful Artists Inspired Their Work

Courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Édouard Manet, The Infanta Margarita, after Velázquez, 1861–62

“This exhibition seeks to reassess the works of these artists and allows us to explore the myriad ways that Manet and Degas engaged with their moment, their time, and how they defined it visually.”

Stephan Wolohojian

In 1861, a young Edgar Degas was sketching Velázquez’s masterpiece, the “Infanta Margarita” in the Louvre when a blond man approached him, disdainfully criticized his technique, and introduced himself as Édouard Manet. From their initial encounter, a complex relationship of both camaraderie and rivalry began to unfold. And this is the subject of a new exhibition, Manet/Degas, which traveled from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and is opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 24.

The exhibition, which includes Manet's iconic Olympia, is co-curated by Stephan Wolohojian and Ashley Dunn of The Met and Stéphane Guégan and Isolde Pludermacher from the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Featuring over 160 major artworks by Manet and Degas, collectively, works by the two artists are presented side by side to show not only how their works overlapped in subject matter and style, but also how, by virtue of their rivalry and their efforts to differentiate themselves, they ended up defining one another. As Stephan Wolohojian, co-curator of the exhibition said, “This exhibition seeks to reassess the works of these artists and allows us to explore the myriad ways that Manet and Degas engaged with their moment, their time, and how they defined it visually.”

Courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Édouard Manet, The Infanta Margarita, after Velázquez, 1861–62

Both artists came from similar backgrounds: they were born to moderately wealthy families, both had fathers who expected them to become lawyers, and both began their artistic careers by studying under classic French painters and copying the Old Masters. Importantly, both artists worked with techniques that were “Impressionistic” but neither identified as an Impressionist. From there, the similarities keep coming, most notably by their artistic subject matter, which — as demonstrated in painting after painting in this show — was nearly identical: from history painting to horse races, seascapes to café scenes, nudes, family portraits, and portraits of friends, the list goes on and on. In addition, the two were not just painters, but draftsman. This exhibition, according to co-curator Ashley Dunn, “looks at their practice as painters and draftsmen and brings to the floor their mutual interests in printmaking, which is at the very origin of their story.” Manet/Degas presents all these genres and illustrates how vastly differently each artist contributed to it through composition, tonality, choice of subject, and brush stroke style.

Wolohojian pointed out that their relationship, though complex and nuanced, did not end when Manet died in 1883. In fact, Degas went on to amass one of the largest collections of Manet’s work. He said, “In some ways, these galleries present an extraordinary retrospective of these great artists, but we have also staged an astonishing conversation, exploring what brings these artists together as well as what separates them. The presence of one artist allows us to see better, with deeper insight, the work of the other.”

In honor of the opening of Manet/Degas and in light of the curatorial message of a “conversation” between these two artists, here are some recreations of the best comparisons of the exhibition:

Photo: Peter Schälchli, Zurich / Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY

Left: Édouard Manet, Portrait of the Artist (Manet with a Palette), ca. 1878–79. Right: Edgar Degas, Portrait of the Artist, 1855.

Self Portraits

One of the biggest differences between Manet and Degas was their idea of artistic development. For Degas, artistic growth at the start of his career took the form of roughly forty self-portraits that served not only as a record of his appearance but also as an accurate way for the artist to survey his skill and profession. This self-portrait, painted in 1855, was made at the same time that Degas quit his formal training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and set off for an extended trip to Italy. Here we are confronted with a serious Degas in a dark brown background, wearing a suit and necktie. The dramatic lighting, also known as chiaroscuro, is reminiscent of Rembrandt or Caravaggio

For Manet, his development was borne out of the evolution of his style. His earlier works show a more traditional approach, while his later works, such as those associated with the Impressionist movement, display a looser and more innovative style, as evident by this self-portrait. And unlike Degas, Manet preferred to use his likeness in his work as a symbolic presence. In some cases, he paid homage to his predecessors such as in Fishing, where Manet depicted himself and his wife Suzanne as Peter Paul Rubens had done with his wife in Park of the Château de Steen. In other cases, Manet inserted himself through the use of symbols such as a sword. In fact, this is one of his two self-portraits, both of which were painted toward the end of his career. 

Employing the self-portrait as a way to look back rather than a way of looking forward, Manet’s self-portrait — with his frock coat, black top hat, and silk tie – was an outlet for Manet to record his success, not only as an artist but as a figure in society. After all, Manet was diagnosed with Syphilis in 1879, the same year this portrait was conceived, and it could be possible that Manet, no longer able to go out to the cafe-concerts or stroll on the boulevards, painted these two self-portraits as a way to come to terms with his terminal situation. 

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Left: Edgar Degas, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, 1866. Right: Édouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, probably 1864.

The Fallen Athlete

Both of these works are on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, yet as noted by Isolde Pludermacher, of the Musée d’Orsay, they have never been shown side by side. They both depict a fallen warrior: a dead bullfighter by Manet, and a fallen jockey by Degas.

Manet, though strongly influenced by Spanish masters Velazquez and Goya, had never been to Spain when this painting was completed around 1864. Nevertheless, his interest in Spanish painting inspired Episode from a Bullfight which directly referenced a group of prints by Goya of bullfights. When the painting was accepted into the 1864 Salon, it was mocked for its lack of relief and its poor perspective and proportions. Upset by the criticism, Manet cut the canvas into two works: The Bullfight (La Corrida) and The Dead Toreador. 

Degas was influenced by Manet’s work after seeing it at the Salon, and two years later he produced Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey. The painting depicts a steeplechase, a dangerous and controversial obstacle race. There are three protagonists: the unseated rider, his horse captured in flight, and the other jockey riding on indifferently. Degas continually reworked this painting, as evidenced by its muddy colors that bleed into one another and an overall loss of clarity on both the tonality of the work and its iconography: Unlike Manet, who renders his toreador as dead, Degas’s rider on the ground leaves the viewer questioning. Despite Degas’s efforts, this work did not pique any interest from the public or critics and it went largely unnoticed. 

Photo © RMN-Grand Palais, Adrien Didierjean, Art Resource, NY / Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Left: Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875–76. Right: Édouard Manet, Plum Brandy, ca. 1877.

Same Model, Same Place

Possibly the most on-the-nose comparison one could make from the exhibition is from these two works: both paintings, made just a year or two apart, depict the actress Ellen André at La Nouvelle Athenes, the beloved meeting place on Place Pigalle for painters frequented by Manet and Degas, and the setting for many Impressionist paintings. But the outcome is incredibly different. 

In this case, Degas painted his version first: a young woman and man sit next to each other, drinking a glass of absinthe. Though they are next to each other, the woman, with her slumped body posture and melancholic expression, is clearly deep in thought. The sepia tones of the painting accentuate her sadness; her mind far away from the cafe and even farther from her companion.

Manet’s version depicts André, at the café seated alone, with a cigarette between her fingers and a plum soaked with brandy on the table before her. But in Manet’s depiction of Andre, with its vibrant color palette and close-up view, the model seems lost in a dream rather than depressed. Her cheeks are rosy and she gives almost the hint of a smile, whereas in Degas’s version, the muted and yellow colors and her drooping posture are clear signals of the model’s sadness.

The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917. In partnership with Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin (NG3247) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Left: Edgar Degas, Beach Scene, ca. 1869–70. Right: Édouard Manet, Boating, 1874.

Beach Days

Manet and Degas were both fond of small beach and seaside scenes in resorts such as Trouville, Gennevilliers, or Argenteuil, painting many scenes of boating and swimming along the Seine river. 

In 1869, Degas visited Trouville, a beach town on the coast of northern France, and painted Beach Scene, along with three other works of the seaside. In the foreground of this work, a maid combs the hair of a girl who just went swimming, as evidenced by her bathing suit that is stretched out on the sand to dry. The background is filled with beachgoers who stroll along the shoreline: a family towels off, while a man and his dog are in conversation with a woman holding a closed parasol. 

A few years later, Manet summered with Claude Monet at Gennevillers and Argenteuil right on the outskirts of Paris, where this work was painted. The influence of Impressionism is ripe within this work: it was painted in 1874, the year the first Impressionist Exhibition was held. And although Manet declined to exhibit with the group (which included Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and one of the few female Impressionist’s, Berthe Morisot), this work shows how taken he was with the developing Impressionist style: from the patchy brushstrokes of the aquamarine water to the vibrant movement of the woman’s dress, to the scene being of outdoor leisure, these are all aspects of the emerging Impressionist style. 

Courtesy of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum / Wikipedia

Left: Edgar Degas, Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, 1868–69. Right: Édouard Manet, Madame Manet au Piano, 1867-68.

Madame Manet at the Piano: A Feud Depicted 

Have you ever had a fight with a friend where you do something irreparable? Such was the case when Edgar Degas, a guest at the Manets one evening, listened to Suzanne Manet play the piano while her husband, Edouard, reclined on the sofa. Degas, inspired by the scene, went home and painted it. Though we do not know what exactly transpired when Degas presented the painting to Manet, we do know that Manet took the work and slashed it in a clear cut, cropping off the body of the piano and his wife’s face. Angered, Degas took the work back. In a later photograph on view in the exhibition, you can see the slashed painting — now with a board attached to it — hanging as is in Degas’s studio. Manet, clearly upset with how his so-called friend depicted his wife, went on to also produce a portrait of Suzanne at the piano. In a sketch nearby of Suzanne’s profile in red chalk, one can see that Manet might have been obsessed with getting her likeness right, in a way that Degas did not.

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