“Portraits of ladies painted by Manet”

Pietro Svetlich
6 min readAug 22, 2020


-Manet criticizes the Parisian society by showing Suzon’s sad face, unhappy with her compromise.

- Differences in the expressions of the protagonists of “Luncheon on the grass”, “Olympia”, “Nanà” and the “Bar of the folies-bergère”.

-Suzon, part of the “still life”, is placed on the counter like the bottles and the fruit bowl awaiting for someone to use her.

Suzon in the foreground. “Bar of the folies-bergère” (1882)

Manet’s criticism of his contemporaries is hidden in the figure of Suzon, protagonist of the painting “Bar of the folies-bergère”. Suzon watches the ruling class as she serves drinks. The bartender does not use colors, but the spirits reveal the tastes of the customers and the mirror behind her shows us faded, uniform people, like the side customer, dressed in dark and with a top hat. Any face, without expression. Manet paints the details of the interesting figures with care: Suzon’s expression, the bottles and fruit bowl full of oranges, Suzon’s hands reveal how the counter supports her too and confirm the inner fatigue expressed by her face; Manet’s sad expression and thought in the face of the good society, the best society perceived as evolved and distinct. The objects are detailed while the customers are uniform.

The difference in the expressions of the women painted by Manet in “Nanà”, “Luncheon on the grass” and “Olympia” is remarkable. The first two are respectively amused and winking, Olympia seems to show pity and despise towards those who look at her, but all of them seem to have found a compromise with their environment, after having discovered the flaws and weaknesses of the “good society” in which they live. Suzon is elegantly dressed compared to them — Nana is not naked but she is finishing to dress up — but she doesn’t seem to share the balance of the other women. Manet himself, a precursor of Impressionism, was not in balance with his environment. He was friend with the writers of that time, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Zolà. After reading “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, I find that Dostoevsky’s point of view fits better with Manet’s philosophy; the two artists are at the right distance not to get one in the way of the other. We remember the controversies between Cézanne and Zolà and also between the latter and Manet. Dostoevsky, in his “Diary of a writer”, describes the paintings of the Russian Impressionists as if the painting were part of a frame and at that point, observing them, they come to life, that is why I wanted to use his measure. Tolstoy also uses a similar “style”, since in Anna Karenina, published in 1877, he criticizes the good Russian society by showing the frivolity of their life without attacking it directly. Tolstoy describes Stepan Arkadič, Anna’s brother, his character and political view via the newspaper he reads. In the same way Manet, in a very original way, reveals the Parisian society by showing their amusements and their vices, therefore a weak and blackmail society made up of people who sell themselves and people who corrupt them. Being explicit had given Tolstoy problems, for the note to “Kreutzer Sonata” (1891) he had received a lot of criticism, while the story, in which his opinions were expressed indirectly, was appreciated a lot. In the story Tolstoy reveals how, in Russian society, quarrels between spouses take place, and what are the defects of wives and husbands, as everyone knows two wrongs do not make a right and therefore Tolstoy, using statistical measures based on experience says that in 99% of the cases in Russia marriages are unhappy; husbands are “whoremongers” (verbatim and repeated) and women are bad guys. What struck me about the story is the sorrow about the role of women in Russia in those times and how marriage is a kind of prison and the jailer is not only the spouse but also the families who facilitate them; Russian society was respectable on the outside and corrupt on the inside. At this point, again, the women painted by Manet gain further clarity regarding their expressions and, likewise, Parisian society is further revealed in its false external respectability and internal corruption. Suzon is not only placed on the counter, like the bottles, the fruit bowl and the goblet with two flowers inside, but she too seems just an object, on display, richly adorned. Tolstoy is very detailed revealing how in Russia women had to be dressed up, dressed to enhance their beauty, robes and jewels to guide the eyes of the spectators and customers and impress their minds. The problem is that, by adding together the behavior of man and woman, one obtains that of society in total, therefore the picture acquires only sadness and sorrow, like Suzon’s face, dejected. All the accessories on the counter are instead the protagonists and Suzon herself has fallen from person to accessory, she serves to show her shapes, her beautiful face, the gold bracelet on her forearm like Nana’. There is no shop window, but there is the goods on display and behind there is the mirror that shows the buyers.

In Tolstoy’s story, the protagonist Pozdnyšev tells the story of his marriage which ends with the murder of his wife for certain jealousy and imagined adultery. The noble begins to talk about the ambiguity of Russian society and goes on to tell how his wife, according to him, after having stopped having children, had returned to the shine. I reproduce Pozdnyšev’s objective description below and invite my readers to look at Manet’s “Luncheon on the grass” to see if the description is suitable for the woman sitting on the grass.

I believe that Manet caused scandal because he revealed the impressions of his fellow citizens on women, as an object, the woman, in return, could only smile knowing how much pressure she was able to exert on those fake gentlemen in tails and top hats.

“[…] A provocative beauty flourished in her, which troubled men. She was a woman in her thirties who was no longer giving birth to children, was overfed and had an excited imagination. His appearance caused a real disturbance. When she passed among men she attracted all eyes on herself. She was like a well-rested and well-fed harnessed horse, whose bridle have been removed. After all, she didn’t have any bridles or brakes, as ninety-nine percent of our women don’t. I felt all of this very well, and I was terrified. “ Pg79 / 80 “Kreutzer Sonata” Ed.Feltrinelli.

Pozdnyšev’s impressions of his wife will lead him to murder her, then he will be acquitted because he avenged his honor. Parisian critics denigrated Manet’s impressions throughout his life. After more than 100 years Manet has the place he deserves as an artist, the woman still has to fight against abuse and violence, against male impressions on her own figure and how she expresses her femininity.

In conclusion, Manet hid his criticisms and made it indirect, painting the point of view of those who give vent to the vices of Parisians, revealing the moods of those who were in trend at that time while the “consumers” were just an indistinct mass. What would have happened had Manet also been explicit ? With his annotation Tolstoy had become a preacher and no longer an artist.