The gears are turning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in preparation for a joint survey of the entwined careers of French Impressionist painters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, who were regarded as frenemies. The exhibition Manet/Degas, organized in collaboration with and currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, examines the strained relationship between the two artists through over 160 works of art including Manet’s “Olympia” (1863), which will travel to New York — and the United States — for the very first time in late September, when the show is slated to open at The Met.
Manet and Degas had a strange relationship that was rife with both mutual influence and antagonism. Born only three years apart, the two artists reportedly first met at the Louvre Museum in the early 1860s and bonded over a shared fascination with a Diego Velázquez portrait before they started moving in the same circles. The elder artist, Manet, achieved artistic success earlier on than Degas and was accepted into the Paris Salon in 1861 with his painting “Spanish Singer” (1860). Manet continued to push boundaries and was eventually rejected from the Salon in 1863 for “The Luncheon in the Grass” (1863), which showed a nude woman accompanied by clothed men in a pastoral landscape. The incident led him and other artists who were denied a place in the official exhibition to push for the creation of the Salon des Refusés that year and offset the academic prestige of the official Salon. This stunt along with the aforementioned painting catapulted Manet into notoriety, prompting criticism for its “indecent” subject matter. The responses to “The Luncheon in the Grass” gave way to Manet’s “Olympia,” which was considered an even more direct confrontation of French culture and economics.
A major art historical work, “Olympia” was inspired by Titian’s famous “Venus of Urbino” (1534). Manet’s titular subject was a sex worker, a fact that predictably scandalized the audiences of the 1865 Salon where it was first shown. Visitors reportedly attempted to destroy the painting, horrified by Olympia’s direct gaze and the way her hands were rendered, which at least one critic likened to rubber. More recent scholarship has brought attention to a figure who was largely neglected by critics at the time — Laure, the maid standing behind Olympia — and to the ways in which Black women are often relegated to anonymity in art history.
Degas did not exhibit at the official Salon until 1865 when his painting “Scene of War in the Middle Ages” (1865) was accepted by the jury, though it received little attention. While he continued to show his work through the Salon for the following five years, Degas was said to have been inspired by Manet’s success and influence on the French art sphere at the time and pivoted his practice from historical analyses to observations and appreciations of French artistry and culture, leading him to find ballet dancers as his muse.
The two artists remained friends, though tumultuously so, throughout the unfolding of Impressionism. While there is little written evidence supporting their friendship, the exhibition boasts four drawings of Manet by Degas and a Degas portraits of Manet and his wife, Suzanne, which Manet reportedly slashed.
“Their artistic output speaks volumes about how these major artists defined themselves with and against each other,” exhibition co-curator Stephan Wolohojian said in a statement. “This expansive dossier exhibition is a unique chance to assess their fascinating relationship through a dialogue between their work.”
Editor’s note 5/15/23 12pm EDT: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced an incident involving a portrait of Édouard and Suzanne Manet. The work was reportedly slashed by Édouard Manet, not Edgar Degas.