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Four geniuses, and dark strokes in their lives

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``Impressionist Quartet: The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt'' by Jeffrey Meyers; Harcourt ($26)


The vibrant art of the impressionists is not usually considered as a contrast of light and darkness. In Jeffrey Meyers' new book, however, the somber side of the lives of Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt emerges as a living presence in their work. Their private ordeals and inner demons are used to accentuate the brilliance of their paintings and the revolutionary implications of their artistic vision.

Meyers is an accomplished scholar, biographer and editor, with highly regarded studies of Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence and other literary lions to his credit. Writing about the impressionists is a perfect match for his talents because of the intimate relationship of art and letters in the late 19th century.

The first of Meyers' impressionist quartet is Edouard Manet. Controversial throughout his life, Manet was outwardly a dapper man of society who nurtured a rebellious streak. The crucial question facing Meyers is what sparked Manet's revolt. It certainly was not an aversion to the Old Masters. Manet was devoted to Velazquez, and borrowed heavily from Titian for both themes and the spatial dynamics of his own paintings.

Probing Manet's troubled family life, Meyer presents convincing evidence of a Freudian tangle involving Manet's father, Auguste, Manet's wife, Suzanne, and her illegitimate son, Leon. Meyers believes Leon's father was actually Auguste, with Manet marrying Suzanne to preserve the family honor. "Manet may have inherited his father's mistress as well as his fortune," Meyers writes, a humiliation compounded by the suspicion that Manet inherited syphilis from his father as well.

Still, Manet might well have painted lyrical landscapes, like Corot, to escape his private woes. Manet's friendship with poet Charles Baudelaire provides the key to his artistic development. Baudelaire wrote art criticism, propounding the idea that the proper subject for artists was the depiction of contemporary life, rather than grandiose historical or mythological epics. Artists could depict controversial erotic or social themes within the context of the world they knew while adhering to established techniques.

Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter was a charge of dynamite that Manet detonated in 1863 when he exhibited "Luncheon on the Grass. The enigmatic depiction of a nude woman lounging with fully dressed men in a forest glade was a frank admission of sexuality. It created a furor, as did his "Olympia, the even more arresting view of an unclothed (and visibly bored) prostitute viewing her next client. Both women look directly at the viewer, underscoring the complicity to be found in the eye of the beholder.

Despite efforts to secure popular acclaim, Manet was never to rid himself of the notoriety provoked by "Luncheon and "Olympia. Moreover, his inner torment affected his relationship with Berthe Morisot and found a counterpoint in the private lives of his friends Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.

Manet and Morisot deeply loved each other. Manet encouraged Morisot's development as a painter, though his domineering tactics were often humiliating. Unable to marry Manet, Morisot married his brother, forming a loveless if outwardly tranquil match. Morisot's grief at Manet's death in 1883 and her husband's in 1887 burdened her with feelings of guilt and sorrow that stand in sharp contrast to the idyllic landscapes and charming domestic groups she painted.

Manet's relationship with Morisot was mirrored in the blend of intimacy and alienation that marked the friendship of Degas and Cassatt. Though each greatly admired the other, their strong characters kept them apart. Neither married, Cassatt finding solace in her celebrated paintings of mothers and children.

Meyers regards the relationships of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt as crucial to the understanding of impressionism. All were singular characters, and all were wounded souls. Degas, with his haughty, aristocratic personality and devotion to the classic French traditions of master drawing, was as much rebel as Manet. Cassatt, for all of her personal wealth and embrace of impressionism and modern technology, such as automobiles, came to hate modern art and died a lonely woman. Morisot at least found some personal joy in her daughter, Julie.

In his vivid depiction of their intertwined lives, Meyers has thoughtfully re-created the revolutionary moment in the history of culture represented by the creative achievement of these four brilliant artists. At great cost to their own happiness, the "Impressionist Quartet" secured a place for the heroism of everyday life on the canvas of great art.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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