Édouard Manet was from an old bourgeois family: his father was a magistrate and his mother’s father was a diplomat. He was unavoidably shaped by his origins and, however revolutionary his work may have appeared, he retained the bearing and the sentiments of a ‘society gentleman’. As a child, he already felt an irresistible attraction to painting as an occupation. An uncle who was a colonel in the artillery, and who spent every spare moment of his leisure time filling the pages of a sketchbook, passed down to him his love for drawing and took him to museums. Having pursued his studies at Collège Rollin, Manet chose (rather than studying law) to enlist as a ship’s boy on a commercial vessel, the Guadeloupe. The long journey that he made from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro was influential on the way in which his genius developed and later provided the inspiration for seascapes that are among the most beautiful of his era. At the time, however, he felt able only to note down fleeting impressions with some pencil strokes - a picturesque attitude here, an elusive aspect there. On his return to France at age 18, his father acceded to his wishes, agreeing to let him follow his vocation. He arranged for him to enter the studio of Thomas Couture, where Manet remained for six years.
Apart from the general rules of his art, there was not a great deal for Manet to learn from Couture, to whom success had come easily and for whom virtuosity took the place of real talent. Master and pupil did not hold each other in high regard. ‘You will never be anything but the Daumier of painting!’ Couture told him one day, a revealing comment on both painters. Manet nevertheless developed in Couture’s studio; he was given the models that he needed, after which he would go to the Louvre and set passionately to work copying the Italian and Dutch masters, Titian being a favourite. His earliest independent works were also heavily indebted to Diego Velázquez. Journeys he made in this same period to Holland, Germany, and Italy broadened his horizons further. From 1856, he rented a studio on the Rue Lavoisier and decided to work alone.
In 1859, he confronted the public. The Salon rejected his submission, Absinthe-Drinker, and a first exhibition of his work at the Galerie Martinet, on the Boulevard des Italiens, caused a scandal. The astute, elegant, and attractive bourgeois gentleman, conscious of his worth, who liked to please and felt that he was destined for a glorious career, was instantly despised by the public. The newspapers portrayed him as a madman, a vulgar Bohemian, and an anarchist. Like his friend Charles Baudelaire, he saw himself as a great Classicist who was mistaken for a rebel. Manet’s Guitar-Player (or Spanish Singer) was accepted at the Salon of 1861, however, and even won an award. The previous year, he had paved the way for these great compositions that represented the flowering of his greatest freedom of inspiration with Music in the Tuileries Gardens, in which the colours reverberate around the shadows and both the figures and the trees tremble with life.
Manet’s artistic personality is already revealed in these early works by the quality of his contrasting blacks and whites, by the intensity of his tragic effects, and by the refined delicacy of his palette, as well as by the influence of Spain, with which his art has strange affinities and which remained one of his foremost sources of inspiration. (Paris was then fêting a troop of Spanish dancers, a singer, and a guitarist.) The influence of Japanese woodblock prints, which had recently become available in Paris, should not be overlooked. Japanese art suited his temperament because of its bold contrasts and the quality of its colour, clearly situated and sustained by beautiful blacks, as well as through its nonchalant forms, set off by the precision of a firm emphasis; and he was attracted to the subjects themselves - courtiers and theatrical people, artisans at their work, or women at their ablutions. From the very beginning, Manet reacted against insipid contours and attenuated values. He employed an alla prima technique (that is, painting without underpainting), essential for the development of Impressionism. On his canvas, he placed large unified masses, ‘faces from card games’, as was said of his famous Picnic on the Grass ( Déjeuner sur l’herbe), which caused a scandal at the first Salon des Refusés that was ordered by Napoléon III alongside the official Salon of 1863. All sorts of contradictory criticisms have been made of this canvas, which was an open-air painting but also one that contained the open air of the studio, inspired as it was by Giorgione’s Concert champêtre in the Louvre. Manet worked on it for an entire year, but it has all the tonal freshness of a sketch and was described by one critic as a daub and a caricature of colour. This is to say nothing of his audacity in showing a naked woman in a wood in the company of men wearing jackets! The young woman was Victorine Meurent, a redhead with a matte complexion, a svelte figure, and an impassive demeanour who was to feature for 12 years in many of the painter’s canvases. She would distress the 1865 Salon’s established visitors once again in her next incarnation, Olympia, painted in 1863. The gulf was widening yet further between Manet and his public. This naked girl appeared perverse, stupid, cadaverous, catlike in attitude, and indecent; the bouquet and her black servant were considered ridiculous. Finally, the face and the pallid flesh tones, through their faintly indicated contours, offended the viewers who were used to clever graduations and skilful transitions from light to shade. However, a small group of artists and writers took up a passionate defence of the work. They would meet at the Café Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy. In this coterie, the brilliant Manet held the place of honour.
Contrary to his relaxed appearances, his output of work was prodigious: he produced watercolours and etchings, studies, major topical subjects taken from contemporaneous events, portraits and seascapes. Baudelaire wrote to him: ‘They cannot recognise your talent. . . . Do you imagine you are the first person to find yourself in this position? Are you any more of a genius than Châteaubriand and Wagner? That did not stop people making fun of them. Nor did they die of it’. People in the Salons pointed fingers at such a distinguished bourgeois gentleman who ‘painted obscenities’. Émile Zola was dismissed from the journal in which he had published his enthusiastic praise in 1867, the year of the Exposition Universelle. Anyone with any influence in society visited Paris for this event. To make his works known to the public, Manet presented them himself in a small pavilion outside the official enclosure. By this time, he had attained the most perfect degree of mastery. With strikingly restricted means, on a canvas on which he had spread a simple layer of paint, he would indicate the transition from light to shade in a few short paintbrush strokes and give resonance to his models’ luminous flesh tones, while first indicating in a unified tone some shadows that he would then emphasise violently with strokes of light. ‘M. Manet’, he wrote in the catalogue, ‘has claimed neither to overturn an old style of painting nor to create a new one. He has simply sought to be himself and none other’. It was only a few of Manet’s personal friends who bought canvases from him. Nevertheless, the paintings on show included Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, the admirable Running of the Bulls, Woman with Parrot, Guitar-Player, and Child from the Troop Playing the Fife, over which the greatest museums were to enter into disputes.
When war broke out in 1870, Manet fought in defence of Paris in the uniform of the national guard. But from February 1871, he took up his brushes again. At the Salon of 1873, a dramatic development ensued: Good Glass of Beer, colourful and solid, was not only accepted but admired both by the critics and by the public. Such a violent reversal worried the painter more than it delighted him. In fact, it turned out to have hardly any impact. The development of his art was then in full flow. Some of the young artists on whom his genius made a powerful impression influenced him in return, leading him to lighten his palette and develop a feeling for real open air. Under the influence mainly of Edgar Degas - whom he did not much like - new and fertile sources of inspiration appeared: railways, houses on the boulevards, sofas with covers, and bathroom or kitchen utensils. From these humble objects, transfigured by their art, Manet and his friends wrought masterpieces. It was as if ‘this innovation was more unforeseen and had more consequences for artists to come than the exoticism of a Gauguin’. Thus a great new inspiration came to enliven the canvases of this period, such as the magnificent Linen of 1876, which is full of real countryside air: the fresh air that circulates throughout is not that of a studio. This stunning picture was rejected by the Salon; the mass of his contemporaries still did not understand. When Manet invited the press to see his canvas in his studio, there was a chorus of curses. ‘What forms! What colours! What flesh tints!’ cried the indignant critics. ‘The trees are the colour of flesh, the face resembles the dress, the linen has the solidity of the body and the body has the thinness and unevenness of linen’. Another critic exclaimed the following year before another open-air painting, Argenteuil: ‘M. Manet has never sunk so low. In recent years, he has exhibited some extremely clownish and ridiculous things...’. However, his friend Stéphane Mallarmé was proud to have his portrait painted by him - which was one of his masterpieces. Again in the open air, Lunch at Father Lathuile’s House radiates light and vitality, while Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for which studies were made on-site in a multitude of sketches, completely reconstructs the artificial atmosphere and every aspect of the teeming and diverse life from which the beautiful girl with the worldly expression wanly emerges under the electric lights in front of its black table and bottles. In the same year, 1882, an exquisite portrait of a young girl, Jeanne, disarmed his fiercest opponents at the Salon.
However, though still young, Manet was exhausted by all this labour; the battles had worn out his nerves, and for two years he had been experiencing the first symptoms of a terrible illness that would destroy him: progressive locomotor ataxia, as well as tertiary syphilis. He suffered increasingly frequent and painful attacks. He still produced some great compositions, luminous and stunning ones such as Monsieur Perthuiset, but more often he produced portraits, flower paintings, and still-lifes that would not require him to stand in front of his easel for long periods at a time. He worked with pastels, which he found less tiring than the brushes. During the summer of 1882 at Reuil, he was hardly able to walk, and he used up the last of his strength on painting his garden or making some quick sketches of pretty visitors. The following winter, the illness worsened dramatically, and he developed gangrene in his left foot, which had to be amputated. Manet died on 30 April 1883. He was 51 years old, and he left 420 oil paintings, 114 watercolours, 85 pastels, and countless engravings. An engraver and lithographer, he was instrumental in reviving original etchings. From 1862, 76 etchings were made after his paintings. He also created some lithographs and posters, of which the most sought after is Cats. He produced some illustrations: in 1874, for Charles Cros’s River; in 1876, for Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun ( L’Après-midi d’un faune) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven ( Le Corbeau); and in 1869, he contributed to the illustration of Sonnets and Etchings ( Sonnets et eaux-fortes), produced by Éditions Lemerre, as well as to the Weekly Review ( Revue de la semaine).
Manet’s technique generally stands in contrast to that of his friends. He practised the craft of the Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch painters. The preliminary drawing held the same importance for him as it did for the great masters of the past, whereas the Impressionists constructed with colours, using their brushes to hint at objects that are defined by the play of light. Nothing could be further from the technique of Manet, who enclosed his subjects with sombre and clear lines: Manet, ever scrupulous, was a draughtsman who, until the end of his life, would scratch, correct, erase, and measure so as to remain as close as possible to life and to its truth. Although once classified as one of the Impressionists, it would be more accurate to call him a Realist influenced by Impressionism.