How else are we to view Manet if not as a man of destiny called upon to preside over a metamorphosis of the arts which was not only inevitable but long overdue? By the time he came on the scene, in the mid-19th century, the foundations of a whole world had largely crumbled away; an era had come to a close and modern times lay ahead. Hitherto art had been the appanage of kings and princes; its mission had been to express an inordinate, unexceptionable majesty which, tyrannically, unified men. But of the majestic nothing remained that an artisan could take any pride in serving. From now on the men of letters, the sculptors, the painters who had once been "artisans" were "artists" and had nothing else but their own personality to express; they were their own masters, their own sovereign. The ambiguous name of "artist" covered both a new-found dignity and a pretension difficult to justify. Isn't the artist all too often a mere artisan puffed up with conceit and ambition, drunk with his own sense of self-importance? Once he is free of every restraint, and need no longer defer to the dictates of all-powerful patrons, his pretensions are in danger of outstripping his talents.
In the confusion brought on by an almost overnight emancipation Manet appears as the symbol of all the conflicting inclinations a free man is torn between. In retrospect the actions of his life resemble the spinning of a compass needle thrown out of kilter. Those who came after him were free to choose. Manet had no choice but to make a clean break with the old order. He had strength enough to turn his back upon the past, but in doing so he somehow lost confidence in himself, failed to grasp the real trend of events, and let himself be entirely unstrung by the jeers of the public. We can hardly blame him for floundering a little at first. Later, too late perhaps, he tried to follow in the wake of Impressionism, but Impressionism was a pale affair beside that whirl of possibilities which, one after another, had danced through his imagination, only to leave him perplexed. Meeting as he did with one rebuff after another, how could he possibly have seen his way clear or stilled the tumult of resentment within him? His agony began afresh each time some wretched jury rejected one of his pictures and turned to joy when at last, in 1881, he was awarded the hors concours medal and then the Légion d'Honneur.
What is hard to make out is Manet's self-effacement, his moral timidity. In the preface to the catalogue of the exhibition he held in 1867 at his own expense, he addressed himself in the most diffident terms to the public that had so brazenly manhandled him. "Monsieur Manet," he wrote, "has never meant to protest. On the contrary, it is against him, to his great surprise, that the protesting has been done. Monsieur Manet has always recognized genuine talent wherever it is to be found, and has presumed neither to overthrow a long-standing form of painting nor to create a new one." Could anything be farther from the ways of the present day, now that aggressiveness and high-powered propaganda, calculated to dazzle and amaze, have got the upper hand?
As a matter of fact, Manet lagged behind his times in this respect. Romanticism set out to be provocative, while the parallel impact of Baudelaire's childish distress and childish joys was calculated to shock. Manet could have done as much, but a sustained effort in this direction wore him out and left him to suffer the inevitable rebuff in painful silence. What he yearned for was encouragement, official success. The reason for this rather pathetic desire? What else but the need to compensate for that cumbersome hypertrophy of the ego which is the artist's lot, and which sets him apart from the artisan. The artisan had remained anonymous, while it is the desire to achieve recognition from his peers--not, as with the artisan, from his employers--that enables the artist to avoid the pitfalls of an overweening egoism. But what if the crowd, the public at large, is not composed of his peers and turns a deaf ear on what he has to say? Is he then condemned, irremediably, to swell up with that peculiarly empty, futile kind of pride we associate with certain Romantics?