Manet attached great importance to still life, which he considered to be the "touchstone of the painter". Tired of history painting and of the "pretentious productions" that weighed down contemporary artistic production, he confessed: "A painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds. You know, I would like to be the Saint Francis of still life."
To be sure, in the 1860's still life was fashionable. Its newly acquired popularity was due to the collapse of the old generic hierarchy (which also benefited genre and landscape), to the rediscovery of aspects of the 18th century and to the recent exaltation of Chardin, even though reservations concerning what was viewed as decorative art works suited to feminine talent, still abounded. Manet painted still lifes throughout his career, from ambitious compositions to slight sketches. This exhibition, for the first time, brings together seventy-four of these works, most of them paintings, but also some drawings, watercolours and prints.
Still lifes represent almost one fifth of Manet's production, a much higher proportion than is the case with the other artists of the "New Painting" (with the exception of Fantin-Latour and Cezanne). Contemporary critics recognised their importance at once, whether their presence in a number of figure paintings of the 1860's – the bouquet in Olympia, the books, the lemon and the glass on the table in the Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (Bremen Kunsthalle) or the tray on the tabouret in the Portrait of Théodore Duret (Paris, Musée du Petit Palais) – or in the independent still life pictures the artist was to exhibit at the Galerie Martinet in 1865 and at his private exhibition of 1867, on the Avenue de l'Alma.
This was the part of his work that received the warmest welcome. "The most vociferous enemies of Edouard Manet's talent grant him that he is good at painting inanimate objects" noted Emile Zola in 1867. Indeed, his detractors never said anything else : if Manet had any talent at all, it was limited to his transcriptions of these "inanimate objects," otherwise he degraded everything he touched. The painter who, from scandal to scandal, had acquired, as Degas put it, a reputation à la Garibaldi, was no more than a technician skilled in rendering bouquets, laid tables and all sorts of "things".
Manet, a painter of still life, meditated on the lessons of his predecessors, those of the Spanish and their bodegones (Guitar and Hat, Avignon, Musée Calvet), those of the Dutch (The Salmon, Shelburne, Vermon, Shelburne Museum), and of Chardin (Fish, Chicago, Art Institute). In the 1860's he toyed with frank oppositions of black and the white, the dark wood of a table against the brightness of a napkin or tablecloth on which he placed his touches of colour.
Like Cézanne and Monet, whom he was to influence, Manet found in the obedient and ever-available still life a laboratory for experiments in colour. He transferred his discoveries to other compositions and, like Cézanne and Monet, he revealed a curious obsession with sparkling whiteness; he too wanted to paint tables set with white tablecloths "like a layer of freshly fallen snow", (Still life with Melon and Peaches, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art).
Given the importance of still life in Manet's work, many recognised as early as the 1890's, the revolution he had been accomplishing - the birth of a painting solely preoccupied with itself and freed from the tyranny of the subject. By rejecting all hierarchy within the painting itself, highlighting the accessory as much as the figure, Manet assuredly broke away from academic rules. Devoted to a few figural masterpieces (Portrait of Zacharie Astruc, Young Man Peeling a Pear, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Portrait of Théodore Duret, Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, London, National Gallery), a section of the exhibition will focus on the subtle connections Manet established between the sitters and the referential objects that surround him.
Many of Manet's still life paintings of the 1860's are complex, large-scale compositions. After 1870, his intent for the most part changed. He now isolated fruits, vegetables, or flowers, which he set on a neutral support, against a neutral background, disdaining other objects including the usual crockery. It was not that he neglected the still life, but it had taken another turn. It had acquired greater softness along with transparency and fragility.
The small paintings now have the lightness and softness of the watercolours of the admirable letters he sent to his women friends (of which some twenty are on view). These qualities are also to be found in the bouquets painted in spring of 1882, with which the exhibition comes to a close.
The flowers stand in crystal vases which permit us to see the tangle of stems as a kind of "backstage" view of the chromatic visions that bloom above the narrow neck of the vase. They proved to be Manet's farewell as he was to die a few months later.