Manet exhibit's Toledo connection lost on British art fans

A Royal Academy of Arts employee examines Manet’s ‘The Railway, 1873’ at the gallery in  London.
A Royal Academy of Arts employee examines Manet’s ‘The Railway, 1873’ at the gallery in London.

LONDON — The reviews are in. The exhibition Manet: Portraying Life at London’s Royal Academy of Arts is a success, although not a platinum-plated one.

Richard Dorment of the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s largest-selling broadsheet paper, called it “groundbreaking.” Tom Sutcliffe, host of BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts review program Saturday Review, described it as “not exactly a blockbuster exhibition.”

Regardless of critical sniffing, the lunchtime crowd on a recent Friday was substantial. Those attending were fairly typical for this time of day: mostly retirees and foreign tourists. Women seemed to outnumber men by about three to one.

Speaking to people after they had spent time in the 19th century with Manet and his subjects, you got mixed views on the art but unanimity on one facet of the exhibition.

No one knew the Royal Academy had a collaborator in mounting it, much less that the collaboration was with the Toledo Museum of Art.

“Oh, really?” Alison Hawkes said when told the exhibition was co-curated by Larry Nichols of the Toledo museum. Her friend Maureen King could only muster a “Huh?”

An unscientific poll conducted over an hour outside the Royal Academy found not a single person who knew of the Ohio connection. Ms. King confessed, “I’ve never heard of Toledo.”


But once it was explained to her, she thought that explained a mystery of the exhibition.

One of Manet’s best-known paintings is a portrait of a young woman serving at a theater bar. It’s called Bar at the Folies-Bergere and is in the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, about a mile from the Royal Academy.

A number of critics had noted the painting wasn’t part of the exhibition and wondered why. Ms. King thought the Courtauld was probably unwilling to lend to a gallery so far away.

When it was pointed out that it wasn’t like shipping the picture to the other side of the world and that every precaution had been taken and besides, when the exhibition was in Toledo, the paintings were insured for $1.1 billion, Ms. King shrugged. London’s culture vultures are an insular bunch.

The two women were in agreement that the show revealed something new about Manet, but not in the way the curators intended. Ms. Hawkes described many of the paintings as “trivial.” The takeaway for Ms. King was, “It was very interesting to see how many bad paintings he made.”

Ben Craster, 39, and his friend, Marina Palmer, 36, disagreed.

“You don’t come to a show like this to see an artist’s greatest hits,” Ms. Palmer asserted. “To have all these portraits in one place was wonderful. When you see them one at a time at this or that museum, they don’t have the same weight.”

The Toledo question brought a blank look to the couple’s faces. A reporter probed further: “Do you know why I’m asking you about Toledo?”

“I’ve no idea why you’re asking me,” Mr. Craster responded. When the situation had been explained, he said, “Great, thanks Toledo. Well done. Do more.”

There was one person who had a sense of the participation of the Toledo Museum of Art in setting up the exhibition. Peter Clymer, 68, had noticed a number of paintings had come from the Toledo museum. His French-born wife, Michele, thought it was Toledo in Spain. This was the first she had heard that there was a city called Toledo in the United States.

When the full situation — the Toledo museum’s partnership and efforts, as well as the sense in Toledo that somehow the British press had not credited the museum’s contribution — had been explained to him, Mr. Clymer said, “Would you apologize to the citizens of Toledo on behalf of the people of Britain and La Belle France?”

The reporter promised to do just that.

Michael Goldfarb is a freelance writer based in London.