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Before Facebook, there was Manet, painting friends

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Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, poses in front of a portrait of French Impressionist Edouard Manet, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Toledo, Ohio. An exhibition of Manet’s works opened this month and runs through the end of the year before moving onto the Royal Academy of Arts in London. AP/John Seewer

TOLEDO, Ohio — Long before smartphones turned so many of us into amateur photographers and revolutionized how we depict each other through social media, there were the works of French Impressionist Edouard Manet.

Known for portraits of friends and celebrities of his era, the painter often called “the first modern artist” came of age during the mid-1800s when photography first became available to the public. He even kept his own collection of photos of the subjects he painted.

Manet’s portraits and how they were influenced by photography are the focus of “Manet: Portraying Life” at the Toledo Museum of Art, the only U.S. museum to host the exhibition before it moves to The Royal Academy of Arts in London next winter.

The show that opened this month and runs through the end of the year features 40 paintings from public and private collections, including some of his best-known works. Instead of assembling a retrospective of Manet’s works, the two museums chose portraits that would open the discussion of what impact photography had on Manet’s paintings.

“We’re not suggesting an exact reliance on photography, but this was a new medium in the era that he’s painting and it was very important,” said co-curator Lawrence Nichols.

It is the first time a Manet (1832-1883) exhibit has looked solely at his portraits, said Nichols, the museum’s curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. The museum’s own collection includes Manet’s portrait of a childhood friend who wrote extensively about the artist.

The works include straight forward portraits of men in top hats and women in flowing dresses. There are others that illustrate the change in around his home in Paris, revealing social unrest and the Industrial Revolution.

Sprinkled throughout the exhibition are photos of his subjects — some are original and others are digitized from an album Manet kept — to give insight into how he interpreted the people he painted. In one photo, the tie and beard of a man bears a noticeable similarity to one of his paintings.

“He had images in his life beyond the paintings he made,” Nichols said.

About half of Manet’s entire works, which rank among the greatest of the Impressionist movement, were portraits or scenes from everyday life.

Some of the portraits in the show evoke the photos that we see today on social networking sites like Facebook — they’re small and straightforward yet reveal something personal about each subject.

And they reveal how we record and connect with each other.

The proliferation of images now is similar to what was happening during Manet’s time when the camera made portraits ubiquitous, he said.

These are ideas that the century-and-a-half old paintings can convey to a modern audience, Nichols said. “This is very much about 2012 and what it means to conceive of yourself, to be perceived by someone else,” he said.

Manet’s portraits are spread throughout eight galleries into the museum. The exhibit neatly flows into another show featuring nearly 100 mostly black and white photographs of Hollywood legends from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Outside the hall, there are 700 Facebook-like images of community members, museum volunteers and staff.

“These threads together make it very contemporary,” said Toledo Museum Director Brian Kennedy. “The prints and photos take us back literally through time to Manet. It covers all the various ways people use various media to represent each other.”


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