Manet's place in art


As we want to allow the external circumstances of Manet's life--as they have been described by Théodore Duret and others--to lead us to his various pictures, we will begin by recording that Édouard Manet was born on January 23rd, 1832, at 5 Rue Bonaparte, Paris, and baptized in the church of SaintGermain-des-Prés. His father was a legal functionary, his mother's maiden name was Fournier, and both she and her husband came from well-to-do old middle-class families. Édouard studied at the Collège Rollin, where his teachers certified that his work was thoroughly unsatisfactory and his ideas confused. It would have been in accordance with family tradition if, after leaving school, he had devoted himself to the study of the law. The intention of becoming a painter, which he first expressed when he was sixteen, startled his family. A compromise was reached and he became a sailor, embarking for Rio de Janeiro on the "Havre et Guadeloupe". When asked to do so, he drew caricatures of the captain and officers. Soon the first opportunity of exercising his artistic talent come his way; the colour of a consignment of cheese had been ruined, and Édouard restored it to its original freshness by painting it over.
On his return he succeeded in getting his own way and in 1850 we find him studying at Couture's studio. Manet did not get on at all with his teacher, who has given us some charming small-size heads but otherwise created only stiff arrangements of the "Classical Ideal" with professional models. Couture uttered the ominous prophecy: "You will never be more than the Daumier of your time."
About 1856 Manet left this studio, and we can understand that for him it was not enough. From it he went to the Louvre, and then, following Couture's advice, abroad, to Holland, where Frans Hals interested him, to Dresden and Munich. He copied a Rembrandt and a Titian, admired the great Venetians in Italy, visited Florence and copied a head by Filippo Lippi. Then he returned to the Louvre, where he copied Titian's "Madonna with the rabbit", one of Tintoretto's self-portraits and the horsemen of Velázquez. Between 1851 and 1860 he also paid a visit to Delacroix, whose " Barque of Dante" he asked to be allowed to copy.
The Louvre was a school suited to his rank. There he found himself on an equal footing with kindred masters, he discovered the values which were suited to his talents, mastered them and thus collected the elements which go to form his greatness. These were based on his affection for the rare and supreme values to be found only in a few masters, in Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt and one or two others, to whom Valéry's words are applicable, that they endowed the flowers of a day with a permanence which will endure for centuries and made of them sacred texts.
An attempt to determine Manet's position by an analysis of the purely artistic values in his pictures --in this case we are concerned chiefly with the works of his early period--is particularly difficult because the material available is not sufficient to enable us to form a judgement as to the highest values. The plastic values, by which we mean the expressive and tactile values, those of movement and space, and lastly of composition, have nothing to do with the determining of Manet's place in art, for they can scarcely give rise to disagreement. The position to be assigned to Manet depends entirely on the purely artistic values. Among these colouring and colour-harmonies, which are of great beauty in his works, constitute the least important category, for nowadays they can be assessed by standards comprehensible to all. The two higher categories of artistic values, to be found in the works of great masters and therefore also in those of Manet, have hitherto scarcely been established as phenomena, let alone been given a terminology. In the case of one of the two, the use of grey, which holds an almost supreme position in painting, not as a colour to be arranged with the other colours but with pretensions to individual beauty, the best term one can use is perhaps "value of grey tones". The frequency with which such tones occur in Manet's works raises them to a higher level than, for instance, those of Van Gogh. But his real place is determined by the values which ensue when the grey tone values are brought into contact with other colour values which are suited to them, without being blended to form harmonies, and which have sufficient character to retain their independence. In such cases of artistic polyphony, it is best to speak of "melodic values".


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