As Manet's friend, Antonin Proust, tells us, "He would sketch a mere nothing in a notebook--a profile, a hat, a fleeting impression--and the next day a friend, catching sight of it, would say, 'You ought to finish that.' Manet would laugh. 'Do you take me for a historical painter?'Historical painter, in his mouth, was the most damning insult that could be hurled at an artist. 'There is nothing more ludicrous,' he would say, 'than to reconstruct historical figures. Do you paint a man according to the description given on his hunting license? There is only one thing that is real: to put down immediately, with one stroke, what you see. When you get it, you have it. When you don't get it, you try again. Everything else is nonsense!'"
We have already considered this question of the unfinished. We have seen how Giorgione, Leonardo, and Michelangelo felt it necessary to go beyond the workmanship of the artisan and to stress that a painting must be above all the work of the mind. Later, the ability of the hand became more and more appreciated. No doubt, everybody admired in a painting of Courbet the work of the hand rather than its spiritual values. By stressing the unfinished, Manet reasserted a desire for spiritual values within the limits of form itself. Classicism, romanticism, realism were ideals forced on art by intellectual or moral principles. But the ideal of the unfinished was necessary from the very conception of the painting and was a denial of the popular illusion that art should merely imitate nature. For a realistic finish Manet substituted a pictorial finish.
Two great painters, Constable and Corot, had faced the same problem about forty years before Manet. They achieved some of their masterpieces by stopping the painting as soon as they became aware that they had expressed their imagination completely and before they reached the illusion of reality. But they knew that their masterpieces were excluded from the exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the Parisian Salon, where only illusionistic finish was admitted. Constable made pairs of paintings, of which one was for himself and the other for the Royal Academy. In the second he lost a great deal of the artistic value previously created. Corot did not dare send to the Salon his Bridge at Narni, which we admire now in the Louvre as one of his greatest masterpieces. Instead he painted a replica, now at the National Gallery, Ottawa, which shows a pointless return to the tradition of the seventeenth century. He looked to the future for himself and to the past for the Salon.
Manet refused to bow to the taste of the Academy and of the public. He exhibited his new "unfinished" interpretations of reality. The public did not recognize the reality in them and protested violently. Manet stuck to his principles, was refused, and opened a one-man show in 1867 outside the general exhibition. He wrote in the catalogue: "Monsieur Manet has never desired to protest. Quite the contrary, to his surprise, others protested against him. There is a traditional way of teaching forms, methods, visualization, painting: those who arc trained in such principles admit no others and thus acquire a naive intolerance. Anything outside their formulas must be without value.... M. Manet... has never claimed to overthrow an old form of painting or to create a new one. He has merely tried to be himself, and no one else.