Manet has a place all his own in the history of art. Not only was he a very great painter, but he cut himself off from the painters who preceded him, opening up the age we live in today, the age we call Modern Times. Completely out of step with his own, he shocked and scandalized his contemporaries, to whom his painting came like a bolt out of the blue. The word "revolution" might describe this irruption and the completely new outlook behind it, were it not for the misleading political implications almost inseparable from such a word.
The difference between Manet and the other artists of his day can be summed up in two points.
First, a Manet canvas, by its very nature, conflicted with everything that a painting was, at the time, commonly expected to be. Duranty, a critic of the period, stated the case as follows: "At any exhibition," he wrote in 1870, "even from many rooms away, there is only one painting that stands out from all the rest: it's a Manet every time. One is apt to laugh, for the effect is queer when a single thing differs from all the others."
The second point to be made is no less arresting. Never prior to Manet had the breach between the taste of the public and changing types of beauty--which art continually renews-been so conclusively final. With Manet began the days of wrath, of those outbursts of scorn and derision with which, ever since, the public has greeted each successive rejuvenation of beauty. Others before him had roused indignation; the relative unity of classical taste had been all but shattered by Romanticism, while Delacroix, Courbet, and even Ingres, for all his classicism, had set the public laughing. But the laughter that lay in wait for Olympia was something unprecedented; here was the first masterpiece before which the crowd fairly lost all control of itself.
This state of affairs was doubly paradoxical in view of Manet's mild-mannered, self-effacing character. Yet as early as February 1863, only a few weeks after his thirty-first birthday, with the showing of his Concert at the Tuileries at the Galerie Martinet, Manet got his first taste of notoriety; then in May, at the Salon des Refusés, he touched off a scandal that reached its peak in the uproar over Olympia at the 1865 Salon and indeed threatened to get out of hand. Degas, only two years his junior, had yet to show anything like the same originality, and at the 1865 Salon exhibited a hopelessly dull, hopelessly conventional historical painting entitled The Evils befalling the City of Orléans. The fact remains that there is a richness in Degas' personality that Manet's lacks. A gentleman painter, a man about town, Manet only skimmed the surface of some of the more vital things of life. The portraits and photographs we have of him fail to excite our interest. The things he had to say--as recorded by Antonin Proust and by Baudelaire in La Corde--amount to little more than small talk, lit up now and then by a flash of wit or plain common sense.
Manet was much amused at the efforts being made to bring historical figures back to life in painting. "Do you suppose you can paint a man with only his hunting licence to go on?" he said to Proust, adding: "There's only one way of going about it. Take a look and then put down what you see, straightaway. If you've got it, good. If you haven't, start again. All the rest is nonsense." And again in Baudelaire prose-poem La Corde ( Manet is not named but there can be no doubt that he is the speaker): "As a painter I am called upon to look hard at the faces that cross my path, and you know the delight we take in this faculty of ours which, in our eyes, makes life more alive and more meaningful than it is for other men."
It is in his friendships--and in his paintings--rather than in his conversation that we detect a yearning for poetry behind this pleasant, easy-going exterior. Manet was a friend, one of the closest friends, first of Baudelaire, then of Mallarmé; with the latter he maintained an almost daily contact which only ended with death. We get some idea of Manet's double nature, shy and passionate, from a letter Baudelaire wrote to T héophile Thoré ( June 20, 1864): "Monsieur Manet, generally regarded as either a madman or a crank, is simply a very honest, very straightforward person, doing his utmost to be reasonable, but unfortunately marked by romanticism from birth."