The Venus of Velázquez has a greater realistic imprint and an unsurpassed energy in imposing the force of material beauty upon the beholder. Goya conceived his Maja desnuda as a woman who offers herself, with a hint of irony in her pretended modesty. No doubt, from a psychological point of view, the Maja is closer to the Olympia than are other nudes. But what Manet did seems detached from all previous works with a sharp distinction.
Almost contemporary with the Olympia was the Woman with a Parrot by Courbet, one of the greatest mistakes of that artist. Here one can see the awful fusion of the academic and the realistic. The transformation of reality into art and the consequent autonomy of art in the Olympia become even clearer after one has looked at a Courbet.
Until 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War, Manet painted some marvelous and some less successful works, without departing from the principles realized in the Olympia. As examples, The Fifer ( 1866; Paris, Louvre) and a fragment of the Execution of Maximilian ( 1867), a soldier examining his rifle ( London, National Gallery) may be mentioned. After 1870 Manet understood two facts he had neglected before. The first was the importance of landscape painting in the tradition of his day. Landscape painting was recognized as a special genre in the seventeenth century, and from 1830 on it assumed a certain leadership in taste. One may ask today whether Corot did not have a larger and deeper influence on painting than did Delacroix. It was perhaps easier to reach the autonomy of art in a landscape than in human images, which had to obey conventions thousands of years old.
The figures of Corot are today considered among his masterpieces (for example, the Woman with a Pearl), but his contemporaries did not favor them, for Corot did not obey a rule important for figure painters. These liked to show the interior construction of their figures, conceived of as a process from the inside to the outside. Corot, on the contrary, imagined his figures from the outside, that is, from the effects of light and atmosphere reflected on the bodies--hence the softness and grace of his figures. This meant that his figures did not appear as detached from their environment but as immersed in the surrounding atmosphere. In other words, Corot reflects in his figures his landscape experience; the style of his figures is a landscapist's style.
Now it is well to recall that impressionism was born in landscape experiment. Monet and Renoir were painting at the Grenouillère when they first understood what they might achieve by the division of the colors they saw in the reflections of things in the water. One can say that when the realistic observation of the division of colors in the watery reflections was assumed as a principle of style, and that when the vibration of light was extended to all the elements of a painting, this was the moment when impressionism was born. Such a style was of course more easily realized in landscape painting than in figures. It was Renoir, as is well-known, who first was able to find an impressionistic interpretation of figures and to draw from it a new and unsurpassable grace.
Manet did not care very much to paint landscapes before 1870, nor was he sympathetic toward Claude Monet or the impressionists. In spite of the affinity of their art, and in spite of the hostility of the Salon and the Academy, he did not want to exhibit with the impressionists. But from 1873 he assimilated from Claude Monet the technique of the division of colors and of the light effects which the impressionists had mastered in the meantime.
The Croquet Game ( 1873) shows how Manet realized the human form perfectly, in accordance with the light-filled forms of the trees. The Road Menders, rue de Berne ( 1878) shows a brilliancy of light and shade, a vibration of touch, and a vitality in the whole picture on a level that the impressionist seldom attained. The same must be said of some paintings of flowers, for example Peonies in a Vase ( 1883).
The realization of impressionism in the human figure was difficult also for Manet. A good approach was In the Boat (1874; New York, Metropolitan Museum). Here one sees human figures created by the light itself and transformed into sunny phantasms. But the picture in which Manet achieved an impressionistic vision of figures in his best manner is The Waitress ( 1878; London, National Gallery). The foreground shows a compact group of images, extremely varied in light, shadow, and contrasts and organized as a single image of light and shadow transcending the separate figures. The transformation into light and shadow of everything in the picture is complete.
Before 1870 Manet realized an autonomous form of art that went farther than the dictates of nature or of beauty. After 1870, thanks to impressionism, Manet's autonomy was a synthesis of form, color, and light. One can say that he offered to the impressionists an aesthetic and received from them a technique. The fact is that at the beginning of the modern autonomy of art, the name of Manet must be inscribed first.
In 1883, the year of Manet's death, Jules Laforgue explained that impressionism was not the equivalent of a fleeting reality but the report of an optical sensibility. That is, Laforgue understood that the impressionist's coherence of imagination was no longer enslaved to the control of reality but that it was a production of vision justified by vision itself and by nothing else. Laforgue could not have understood this if he had not known Conrad Fiedler's theory of pure vision.
No doubt Manet knew nothing of Fiedler or of any philosophical aesthetics, but he invented an art which could exemplify Fiedler's theory more than did that of any one else in modern times. The autonomy of art based on pure vision was the meeting point of both art and aesthetics at the end of the nineteenth century.