An understanding of Vue de l’Exposition Universelle, Paris 1867
“Manet a toujours reconnu le talent là où il se trouve et n’a prétendu ni renverser une ancienne peinture ni en créer une nouvelle. Il a cherché simplement à être lui-même et non un autre.”
Edouard Manet, Motifs d’une exposition particulière, May 1867 (in Courthion: 139)
Manet is a transitional painter, emerging from the realism of the early to mid nineteenth century and a precursor to — included in by some authors — the impressionist movement. The public’s fascination with his work is remarkable. But, as much as his work is appreciated today, he has been criticized and misunderstood by his contemporaries. His radical explorations in composition and representation made him an easy target for unfavorable critics. He has been accused of leaving his paintings unfinished, of not being able to compose, of lack of imagination and even of vulgarity (Hanson, Howard, Mainardi, others).
His position as part of the “tribe of eccentrics” (Chesneau q. in Mainardi: 109) has kept Manet out of the conservative catalog of the Fine Arts section of the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris. Since, in the artist’s words, “montrer est la question vitale, le sine qua non pour l’artiste” (in Courthion: 140), he was forced to prepare his own show to display his work to the very important public brought to Paris by the world fair. So, he and Courbet borrowed money and set up on the Place de l’Alma, right on the path leading from the Salon at the Place de l’Industrie to the Exposition Universelle on the Champ de Mars (Mainardi: 109).
It is in this ambiance of optimistic defiance that Manet produced Vue de l’Exposition Universelle, Paris 1867 , his illustration of the fair. The very large canvas depicts a selection of groups of people enjoying the view of Paris offered by the Trocadéro. This preferred point of view of the fair buildings was recommended by most popular and official illustrations. General feelings of emancipation, joy and optimism in the progress transpire from the rendition of characters of different ages and classes. These typical figures are representative of the city’s cosmopolitan diversity and the breadth of visitors brought to Paris by the technological innovations exposed in the pavilions of the Exposition.
Every small group of people is carefully separated so as to give the composition a collage look. This division of the groups is further enforced by an irregularity in their respective ground plane, shadow and perspective angles. The lack of continuity isolates each group as individual subjects. Manet is not only displaying the emerging social individualism, his visual strategy seems to be wishing to render the many ways of experiencing the Monde Moderne, the many stereotypical perspectives on this display of progress. The spectacle of Modernity is open to the gaze of every exhibition visitor.
The image opens with a typical worker employed at cleaning the...