LONDON Bold claims have been made on behalf of 19th century French painter Edouard Manet - that he invented modern art, or was the man who bridged realism and impressionism.
A major exhibition of his work, dubbed a "blockbuster" by the media for its scale and some euphoric early reviews, opens at London's Royal Academy on Saturday and seeks to underline Manet's importance which few recognised during his lifetime.
The gallery will stay open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays to cope with anticipated demand, and the Academy is organising "exclusive" Sunday evening viewings in March and April to allow visitors to see the show with smaller crowds.
Those tickets, including a drink and media guide, will cost 30 pounds, double the normal rate, and the exhibition ends on April 14.
For Lawrence Nichols, co-curator of the show from the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, where it was first displayed last year, seeking to define Manet's place in the history of European art risks missing the point.
"Was he the father of modern art? Was he the first impressionist? My answer to you is he was a creative, talented, self-reliant individual," he told Reuters at a press preview of the first major show in Britain to focus on Manet's portraiture.
"Cezanne loved him, Picasso loved him. He knew who he was. I'm quite convinced that many artists will come to this show over the next 12 weeks and equally be responding to this man's talent," Nichols told Reuters.
More than 50 paintings adorn the walls of the Academy's main gallery space, showcasing Manet's taste for black, white, grey and muted blues that are in stark contrast to the bright colours of the impressionists who followed him.
He portrayed Parisian society and the world in which it moved, blending genre painting with portraiture and succeeding more than most in capturing an era of transition.
Less celebrated than successors like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, Manet nonetheless helped pave the way for their bold brushwork and sense of movement.
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
Manet's nod to the past and eye for the future is clear to see in two small portraits of artist and friend Berthe Morisot.
In the 1872 version, black is typically dominant, including his subject's eyes which were in fact green. The portrait is pretty, Morisot is composed and looks arrestingly at the viewer.
In an 1874 picture of similar size, Morisot is depicted in mourning. Her eyes are sunken, her cheeks hollow, and the brushstrokes are fast and loose, yet the painting manages to capture her sorrow and fragility.
Manet was a friend to the impressionists, and painted Monet and his family at Argenteuil. He once said of the younger artist: "Who is this Monet whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?"
He described Monet as "the Raphael of water" and yet distanced himself from the impressionists, refusing to exhibit with them and focusing instead on the Paris Salons which would reject his work as often as they accepted it.
Manet defied the critical preferences of his day, declining to give viewers a clear narrative in pictures like "Music in the Tuileries Gardens" and "The Luncheon", in which 16-year-old Leon, who may or may not have been the artist's son, stares blankly past the viewer.
Perhaps the greatest artistic scandal of his life, however, came with his infamous "Olympia" (1863), depicting the goddess Venus as a Parisian prostitute and exhibited at the Salon, though not loaned to the Royal Academy for the exhibition.
"Insults are beating down on me like hail," he wrote to his friend, the poet Charles Baudelaire. "I've never been through anything like it."
Another literary friend, Emile Zola, wrote an article defending Manet and his Olympia, support which led Manet to paint the novelist in a major portrait in 1868.
Manet appeared to understand that his status as a titan of modern art would come only after his death.
"Their vision will be better developed than ours," he said of future audiences.
Edgar Degas, one of the pallbearers at his funeral in 1883 along with Zola and Monet, was moved to say: "He was greater than we thought."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)