A fashionable and wealthy crowd that includes many artists and intellectuals has gathered in the Tuileries Gardens to listen to one of the twice-weekly concerts given there. Manet himself stands at the far left of the picture holding a cane, his body cut by the edge of the canvas and partly obscured by the man in front of him, the animal painter Comte Albert de Balleroy. He is a participant in the scene but also slightly detached from it.
Painted in 1862, this was Manet’s first major painting of contemporary life in Second Empire Paris (1852–1870) and is an early example of his interest in urban leisure, a subject that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life, as it would the Impressionists. But it is also a group portrait of Manet and his family, friends and associates.
The painting has the status of an artistic manifesto and has justifiably been described as the earliest example of modern painting due to its subject matter and technique.
This highly important picture has justifiably been described as ‘the earliest true example of modern painting in both subject matter and technique’. Painted in 1862, it was Manet’s first major painting of contemporary life in Paris, and he exhibited it along with 13 other pictures in March the following year at his first solo show at Louis Martinet’s gallery. It shows his growing interest in urban leisure, a subject that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life, as it would the Impressionists. But it is also a group portrait of Manet and his family, friends and associates.
We are in Second Empire Paris (1852–1870), looking at a wealthy and fashionable crowd that includes many artists and intellectuals. The group has an almost courtly feel and has gathered under a canopy of chestnut trees in the Tuileries Gardens, at that time an extension of Napoleon III’s palace, to listen to one of the twice-weekly concerts given there. Despite the painting’s title, the musicians are not included, and it is not clear if the concert has started. Manet himself stands at the far left of the picture holding a cane, which we might also see as a brush – the ambiguity is perhaps intentional. His body is cropped by the edge of the canvas and is partly obscured by the man in front of him, the animal painter Comte Albert de Balleroy, with whom Manet had shared a studio. The novelist Champfleury, a defender of the Realist movement and Courbet, stands behind and between them. Seated close by is the bearded critic, poet and sculptor Zacharie Astruc, whose portrait Manet had painted. Above him is Aurélien Scholl, the ‘journalist of the boulevards‘.
The younger of the two seated women is Madame Lesjosne, at whose salon Manet had met both the painter Frédéric Bazille and the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (who are also in the painting). She is accompanied by the wife of the composer Jacques Offenbach. Wearing glasses and a moustache, Offenbach is seated further to the right between Manet’s brother Eugène (the top-hatted man in white trousers standing just right of centre) and the painter Charles Monginot (who is doffing his hat). An important group near the tree above Madame Lesjosne includes fellow Realist artist Henri Fantin-Latour, who looks directly at us, and the editor Baron Taylor, a promoter of Spanish art. The influential critic and proponent of art for art’s sake, Théophile Gautier, who has a full beard and wears a brown suit, leans against a tree. Seen in profile between Gautier and Fantin-Latour is Baudelaire, perhaps the greatest influence on Manet in the 1860s.
In placing himself at the picture’s edge, Manet was partly taking his cue from Velázquez. Manet had recently made a copy in the Louvre of The Little Cavaliers, a picture at that time attributed to Velázquez, which shows an imaginary meeting of seventeenth-century Spanish artists. The painting includes two men, believed to have been Velázquez and Murillo, standing in similar positions to Manet and de Balleroy. Manet greatly admired Velázquez, an artist for whom the relation between the observer and the observed was a central theme, most notably in his masterpiece Las Meninas (Prado, Madrid). In that painting, Velázquez places the viewer in the place of the King and Queen of Spain, whose portrait Velázquez is painting. Manet’s picture uses a similar conceit by placing us where the musicians would be.
As a gentleman-dandy standing on the fringe of the gathering, Manet is a participant in the scene but also slightly detached from it. By presenting himself in this way, he may also be identifying himself as a flâneur, a type described by Baudelaire as a solitary ’stroller’ or ‘idler’ about town, who is part of the crowd but also observes it ironically from a distance. Manet cultivated the role of flâneur, and Baudelaire was his frequent companion when he went almost daily to the Tuileries Gardens to make studies of the children and their nannies. Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic and worthy of painting as the ancient world, and that painting rather than literature was best suited to capturing the spectacle of the crowd. For Baudelaire, ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.’ Working at speed, the artist should capture these fleeting appearances to ‘find the eternal in the transitory’.
Manet’s painting, with its focus on the look of modern life, including contemporary high fashion (both women’s and men’s), was a response to Baudelaire’s call for images of transient beauty within contemporary urban life. While crowds and concerts were often shown in prints and watercolours by artists such as Gavarni and Guys, Manet has made this theme the subject of an oil painting. But it is his technique as much as his choice of subject that is the source of his innovative modernism. Perhaps using visiting card photographs as prompts, Manet has painted the crowd with great economy and precision, distributing the figures across the picture as if in a frieze but with no obvious focal point. The crowd spreads out without shape or structure into the distance and up to the side edges of the canvas, where figures are arbitrarily cropped. Only a few faces are in focus, and all are flat and lack modelling. Most, especially those beyond our immediate field of vision, are just a blur. As the writer Emile Zola noted, ‘each figure is a little patch, hardly formed.’ Manet’s technique is sketchy and allusive, and the brushwork visible. He constructed the picture as a mass of dabs and touches of colour, without half-tones or chiaroscuro, which register the discontinuous glimpses and glances through which people experienced modern life.
In May 1867 Manet displayed around 50 of his paintings, including Music in the Tuileries Gardens, in a pavilion near to the Universal Exhibition, which ran in Paris from April until October. The German artist Adolph Menzel almost certainly visited Manet’s pavilion, and three years later in Berlin exhibited his own painting Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens, also in the National Gallery’s collection. Menzel’s painting was an acknowledgement of Manet’s, but it offers a very different image of the crowds relaxing in the Gardens.
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