Few painters could conjure stories on canvas the way Manet did, giving a real, breathing snapshot of middle-class Parisian life in the 1860s and 1870s, indoors and out, as leisure became a serious affair for those who could afford it. From lunching to playing music, reading, or just lounging, Manet recorded it all, including the often comfortably furnished interiors.
He painted outdoor pursuits, from picnics to croquet and boating. More than 50 of his 430 known works go on display at the Royal Academy in a new exhibition called Portraying Life, including his Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.
Because Manet was born well off (his father a civil servant, his mother a diplomat's daughter and talented pianist), he didn't need to earn a living. He first wanted to be a sailor but after studying painting, he set up a studio. Though he could paint whatever he liked, what interested him were attractive people in settings that were sometimes real and sometimes fictional. Many of the paintings seem a bit like a page of a novel, where you want to know what happens next.
Manet's wife, Suzanne, turns up in Madame Manet at the Piano, one of many domestic interiors.
Though rich society beauties and courtesans sat for him, Manet painted Suzanne more often than any other woman. She sat for him in a room of their home, a costly house, with its elegant off-white panelling and mouldings picked out in gold leaf in classic French style. Two chairs in the picture are covered in linen dust covers — implying this might be the reception room in which the Manets held weekly soirées.
In another picture, Manet uses Suzanne's young son, Léon, for one of two figures lounging dreamily in front of a French window open to the spectacular summer view of a bay. Interior at Arcachon (1871), is based on a real place; the Manets stayed there during the Siege of Paris. On the south-west coast, Arcachon, christened in 1857 by Napoleon III, became one of the first bathing resorts. The picture shows the new leisured class relaxing in a villa. The woman is comfortable in a cane-backed bergère chair, one slippered foot casually resting on a footstool, sketching the lovely view. The young man on a little French chair, informally dressed, dreams over his novel, leaning on the sturdy round mahogany table. Everything from a fashionable little balloon-backed chair to the gilded mirror, ormolu clock, turkey rug and dove-grey silk damask wallpaper proclaims comfortable, casual elegance.
There is another view of this easy life in The Luncheon (1868), painted at the end of a fine meal. The maid waits in the background with a hot silver coffee pot. Léon was roped in again to pose as a young man in straw hat and whites, looking idly out, to the future perhaps, or just wondering what to do next. All around him are signs of comfortable living, from a fine, squareddamask tablecloth to the gilded coffee cups, the plate of oysters, and a valuable porcelain jardinière on a bamboo table. A framed map on the far wall hints that the world is the boy's oyster.
But it is in The Railway, painted in 1873 out of a friend's studio window, that Manet shows how Paris is changing, in a view of the railway cutting near Gare St Lazare (built in 1835). The little girl clutching the railings is so entranced by watching a big steam train power along the track that she's put down her costly bunch of grapes untouched. To the right is a stone pier that supports a recent engineering marvel, the star-shaped Pont de l'Europe, a huge, six-armed cast-iron bridge. It had a plaza at its elevated centre, where fashionable Parisians loved to stroll. On the other side of the tracks, Haussmann's new Quartier de l'Europe is just visible; a new neighbourhood of middle-class housing into which Manet and his family moved.
To show how quickly these technological marvels had been embraced, Manet paints the young woman reading, a puppy fast asleep in her lap, both completely unimpressed by the racket of innovation and change behind them.
Manet: Portraying Life is at the Royal Academy from January 26 until April 14 (royal academy.org.uk). Tickets are £15 for adults and under 12s can visit for free.