As member of a well-established family--his father was a magistrate--, Manet may have felt a little out of place in the Impressionist group, who made no secret of their revolutionary leanings. While frankly ambitious and no mean wit, he was always readily accessible and never "let down" a friend. He was not discouraged by the ill success that dogged him. Endowed with a well-balanced mind, he never set up to be a prophet or precursor. His life, which was simple, crystal-clear, is mirrored in his straightforward way of painting in full light with his subjects lit up from in front; and in his habit of using those local colours which his Impressionist friends were soon to abolish utterly.
As a young man respectful of tradition, Manet began by visiting the chief art museums of Europe. He developed a liking for the interplay of blacks and white, the arcana of lightand-shade, and those silver-fox grays which so well accorded with his personal refinement. Throughout his life he was held by the charm of these neutral hues, and his impressionist friends' quest of pure tones never lured him from them.
One of Daumier's lithographs shows us two artists painting the same subject, one behind the other, with the caption: "The man in front is copying nature, the man behind is copying the man in front." Behind the obvious jest Daumier may well have had in mind a not uncommon form of aesthetic practice, and we might say, without the least wish to disparage the artist, that in a way it sums up the dazzling art of Manet--who had a taste for paradoxical procedure. Thus he began by taking over subjects already treated, from Titian's day to Goya's; but he neither copies, nor imitates--he remakes. For him--and this was a sign of the times--the subject was losing its importance. But all these past-inspired canvases bear the stamp of Manet's personal and unique genius.
Soon he became very friendly with the Impressionists, though less enamoured of their programme. For one thing, he fought shy of their cult of painting in the open, which conflicted with his notions of studio-produced art. However, he deferred to the advice of Monet, who urged him to get rid of the black of which he was so fond. But as to drawing and composition he stood his ground; he was determined to keep his black contour-lines, his broad tracts of white. His friendship with Baudelaire led him to share, though with extreme caution, in his friend's taste for the "Satanic," which certainly influenced his Berthe Morisot ( 1872), Olympia ( 1863) and Absinthe Drinker ( 1859), amongst other canvases.
But this mild dalliance with the dark side of life was shortlived. His true personality found a new and brilliant outlet in his handling of perspective--so severely condemned by Courbet who insisted that "a picture must not be a playing-card." From now on Manet spreads his backgrounds with a thin coat of semi-transparent colour. When handling foregrounds and objects in full light he makes a point of using the local tone. Here we have, in effect, a rendering of space purely in terms of the relations between tones. Hence his uniformly bright surfaces, and planes superimposed in a calculated clash of tonal "dissonances." Manet was perhaps the first artist to attempt to endow colour and colour alone with the power of setting form free from the shackles of the past with its over-emphasis on the strictly "plastic"--by endeavouring to suppress the third dimension.