Manet was consumed by a creative fever that literally fed on poetry; that was the inner man, masked by an outward show of urbanity. Though admitting to Zola that he "reveled in society life and took exquisite pleasure in the glitter and fragrance of evening parties," Manet, man of the world and brilliant tattler that he was, felt truly at home, not in magnificent surroundings, but in the cafés, which were then as essential in the life of a Parisian who sought intellectual company as were the races in the life of the "smart set." He sometimes went to the fashionable Café Tortoni, but more often to the Café Guerbois, a less pretentious place where he hobnobbed with writers and artists; there the management set aside a table in the evening for Manet and his friends. He passed for something of a wit and Clemenceau, whose portrait he painted and who himself was noted for his caustic tongue, used to tell how much he enjoyed chatting with Manet--"Such a witty fellow he was!" But in the morning his studio was waiting for him; then began "the fury with which he flung himself at the bare canvas, pell-mell, as if he had never painted before." And in the morning Mallarmé used to drop in and watch the outpouring of this passion for some indefinable thing his feverish hand strove to capture. Afterwards came the relaxation of friendly gatherings in the cafés.
The sculptor, poet and critic Zacharie Astruc and the novelist Emile Zola loyally defended Manet at the very time, in the mid-sixties, when for public, critics and academicians alike his every work was anathema. The fine, fullsyllabled name of "Olympia" comes from a Baudelairian poem by Astruc: Quand, lasse de river, Olympia sommeille. . . Braving the storm that broke over Manet's head when that famous picture was exhibited in 1865, Zola imperturbably, prophetically wrote: "Monsieur Manet's place is in the Louvre".
Manet had nothing very profound to say, nor was there anything very striking about his appearance. Not the man to make a show of the storm that raged within him, he quietly went about his work of preparing the way for a new art.
He was of medium height. "Whether in the country or in town," said Antonin Proust, his boyhood friend, "he invariably wore a coat or a jacket nipped in at the waist, with lightcolored trousers and a very tall, wide-brimmed hat.""A beard and thinning blond hair, greying with elegance," said Mallarmé. And Zola: "Keen, intelligent eyes, a restless mouth turning ironic now and again; the whole of his expressive, irregular face has an indefinable finesse and vigor about it."
"He walked with a jaunt," said Proust of young Manet, "to which something loose and easy in his gait gave a particular kind of elegance. However much he overdid it, emphasizing his slouch and affecting the drawling accent of a young Parisian, he never quite managed to be really vulgar. . . Few men have been more charming then he." Such was Manet till the end of his life.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of him written in 1881, when Manet was nearly fifty and had become a typically Parisian figure: "His head and hat thrown well back, his chin held in the air, looking down more with his nose than with his eyes, whose glassy coolness is kindled by indomitable will-power; a quizzical, skeptical mouth parts in the middle above a blond beard trimmed fanwise. Sporting yellow gloves, a fresh cravat, expensive shoes, light-colored trousers, a flower in his buttonhole, so you find him pacing down the Boulevard des Italiens with the brisk step of a man hurrying to a rendez-vous with a Pretty woman, or seated on the terrace of the Café Riche or Tortoni's, a fine cigar between his lips and a high-priced drink on the table in front of him."
He was a man of the world, and made no secret of it. Yet his aplomb concealed a rankling bitterness. Few more charming men than he, yet few have suffered more not simply from their failure to gain recognition, but from being a target of public ridicule. Baudelaire felt moved to take him to task for this. "Confound it!" he exclaimed, "but you expect a lot! It's really fantastic." One of Berthe Morisot's letters describes him as embittered to the very end by the blind incomprehension of the art public.
His outward calm was by no means impassible, since he went so far as to challenge his friend Duranty to a duel. The latter, a well-known novelist and critic, and an advocate of realism in the arts, had published a rather chilly article in Paris-Journal. Manet took offense at this, strode up to Duranty's table at the Café Guerbois that very evening and slapped him. "A single engagement took place," the police records report, "and it was of such violence that both swords were badly bent. Monsieur Duranty received a slight wound below his right breast, his opponent's sword having glanced his side." But the two men patched up their quarrel and a few months later Duranty wrote a glowing article on Manet (quoted above in part) which put a fresh seal on their friendship, momentarily troubled by ill-temper.
Behind the façade of well-mannered self-assurance, then, we glimpse a man vulnerable, temperamental, impulsive. But this instability is quite in keeping with the impersonal character of the one venture, the one risk, to which he exposed himself. In fact there is something impersonal and aloof about Manet's entire life. A little superficial perhaps, but driven on by inner forces that gave him no rest, Manet was possessed by a desire for something beyond his reach which he never fully understood and which left him for ever tantalized and unsatisfied, on the brink of nervous exhaustion.