“You must live like a bourgeois and save all your violence for your art.” Has anyone ever fulfilled more completely Gustave Flaubert’s directive than his younger contemporary Édouard Manet? And has any artist ever been, as a result, more of an enigma? Manet’s contemporaries saw him as a realist, the heir of Gustave Courbet. If any of them had been sufficiently realistic to retain Émile Zola as an investment adviser, they could have retired in style. “So sure am I that Manet will be one of the masters of tomorrow,” the critic and novelist wrote in 1866, “that I should believe I had made a good bargain, had I the money, in buying all his canvases today. In fifty years they will sell for fifteen or twenty times more.” As the art historian George Heard Hamilton remarked, Zola’s wager on the prices Manet would fetch was accurate; amazingly, this was five years before Manet had managed to sell, as far as we know, a single picture. (Luckily there was family money to fall back on.) Although Zola grasped many of the subtleties of his friend’s art, he still thought him to be a realist. He could yet imagine that Manet “came to understand, quite naturally, one fine day, that it only remained to him to see Nature as it really is,” and thus “made an effort to forget everything he had learned in museums” in order to transcribe what he saw with unexampled freshness.

We don’t see Manet like that anymore. It’s not that he neglected to picture the life around him, but he often did so in skewed, confounding and contradictory ways. He made his style modern by quoting the art of the past—not to lean on as a model in the approved academic manner but to poach in an alienated way, at times seeming to anticipate a practice that would later be dubbed “appropriation.” Manet uses a painting by Velázquez or Raphael in much the same oblique and riddling way that Jeff Wall, for instance, would use Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) as a source for his own Picture for Women (1979). For Manet as for Wall, tradition is unfinished and therefore open to reinvention.

Zola eventually realized that Manet was not a realist after his own heart. In 1879 he wrote about the artist again, this time regretting that “he is satisfied with unfinished work; he does not study nature with the passion of the truly creative.” Just as the ordinary run of critics were finally getting used to Manet, Zola was starting to sound like them. That Manet’s paintings looked unfinished had always been their complaint. Manet seemed to violate a sort of artistic ethic, as if he could not be bothered to bring his work to a conclusion. The subjects of his many portraits, at least, knew otherwise. They sat through incessant sessions in which Manet would attempt again and again, sparing neither their time nor his, to satisfy the artistic scruples he could never quite put into words but that are so evident on his canvases. But a “lack of finish” was not the only objection Manet faced. “Olympia can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet,” insisted Théophile Gautier. Similarly, one Louis Etienne confessed, “I search in vain for the meaning of this unbecoming rebus”—meaning Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

What was missing, in the eyes of Manet’s contemporaries, was a coherent story holding together the people and things depicted in the paintings. Its absence made his work seem incomprehensible. Decades later, modernist critics stationed themselves at the opposite pole, saying that Manet’s paintings do cohere, and what unifies them is not narrative but form. Yet the young Manet’s violation of sexual proprieties, and his recurrent resort to politically provocative topics—The Execution of Maximilian in the late 1860s, The Escape of Rochefort in 1880–81—should undermine the notion that subject matter was inconsequential to him. Instead of seeing Manet as either an exponent of realism or an implicit abstractionist, we might be better off thinking of him as a precursor of Surrealism, whose inspiration was Lautréamont’s image of a boy “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” It’s not surprising that the writer who finally understood Manet best was not Zola the realist but Stéphane Mallarmé, the Symbolist who was later acknowledged by the Surrealists as one of their great precursors. The deeper empathy was mutual, as you can see by comparing Manet’s portraits of the two.

If Le Déjeuner is beautiful, it’s beautiful like that—in the spark it generates by short-circuiting meaning. As entwined as the three foreground figures seem to be, they are also strangely disconnected from one another. Yes, the man on the right, the one with the fez-like headgear, could be gesturing toward the man on the left—but the latter seems to be in some other space entirely, physically and psychologically. So does the nude woman, who, looking out in the direction of the viewer, seems quite unaware of the male companions who lounge with her among trees that are too small in comparison with the people cooling off in their shadows. And what about the fourth figure, the woman in the background? It’s impossible to judge her distance from the other three; she seems part of a painted backdrop, a painting within the painting. Altogether, Le Déjeuner recalls more than anything Max Ernst’s definition of a Surrealist collage, as a coupling of apparently irreconcilable realities, on a plane that would apparently not suit them. It is this incipient surrealism that made the painting so detested when it was exhibited in 1863 and that accounts for its tremendous popularity today, a popularity that can be measured in part by the fact that Le Déjeuner is one of the most parodied and pastiched images in Western art—coming in third, by my estimate, after Mona Lisa and The Scream.

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That Manet has become a tremendously popular painter—and the crowds you will have to contend with if you visit the exhibition “Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (through July 3) are proof enough of that—is a curious fact, because he is also a difficult and unpredictable one. Moments of resolution in his oeuvre are few; sometimes his paintings are most interesting for their problems, for their quiet sense of unease with their own devices. Manet’s paintings rarely have the calm, soothing quality of so many of the landscapes by his younger friends the Impressionists. He doesn’t glam up the people he paints, as would a bravura brushman like John Singer Sargent (who followed Manet’s lead in looking to Velázquez for inspiration), and aside from Le Déjeuner, his paintings are rarely very sexy. His other famous nude, Olympia, is distinctly tough, without a hint of come-hither, which is probably one reason the painting kicked up a storm when it was first exhibited. Besides, there’s no sensational or pitiable back story about the life of the artist; Manet’s death at 51 did not come early enough to wring many tears from posterity. Could it be the inner quality of his work that accounts for his popularity, along with the fascination of his historical position as “the painter of modern life”? It seems the general like their caviar after all.

About that phrase “the painter of modern life.” Baudelaire coined it before he knew Manet’s art; he applied it to the illustrator Constantin Guys, a few of whose drawings are included in the exhibition. But it has long been understood to suit Manet best. Its poignancy, in retrospect, is that Manet really turned out to be the painter of modern life and not simply a painter of it, because for his successors modern painting became increasingly divorced from anything resembling those “sketches of manners” or the “portrayal of bourgeois life and the fashion scene” that Baudelaire saw as essential to the depiction of modern life. Painting was abandoning whatever journalistic function it had.

In 1967 the critic Michael Fried, who would go on to write a monumental study of Manet, famously spoke of a “history of painting from Manet through Synthetic Cubism and Matisse…characterized in terms of the gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality—or reality from the power of painting to represent it.” What was lost, in truth, was a shared sense of what would count as a reality worth representing; what was gained was a feeling for the means of representation as realities in themselves. Henceforth, ambitious painting was not going to reflect modernity primarily through its subject matter but through its technique. Picasso and Matisse—let alone abstractionists like Malevich and Mondrian—were modern painters but not painters of modern life; in their own way the German Expressionists strove to be painters of modern life, but their exacerbated sense of the clash between inner experience and objective reality made it impossible for them to be clear-eyed chroniclers of the latter. Only in the 1960s, a full century after Manet appeared on the scene, did Alex Katz and a few photorealists find more or less credibly modern ways of painting modern life again.

Stéphane Guégan, the curator of the Orsay exhibition, would like to divorce Manet’s sense of the “modern” from the modernism that found its beginnings in his work. He’s not entirely without evidence. Wasn’t Manet committed to the official Salons as a vehicle for his career, despite the repeated snubs he received there—paintings refused, prizes withheld—and didn’t he decline to exhibit with the Impressionists, who were his friends and widely considered his followers? Degas, who like Manet was a little older than the Impressionists and not entirely of their sensibility, nonetheless grumbled that Manet’s refusal to unite with them showed him “more vain than intelligent.”

The young Manet had spent no less than six years studying under Thomas Couture, today best known as the author of a spectacularly monumental piece of kitsch, The Romans During the Decadence, which won a prize at the Salon of 1847 and now hangs elsewhere in the Orsay. The exhibition begins by placing Manet firmly in Couture’s orbit, showing his early works alongside those of his master. Among the latter are studies whose lack of finish may recall the loose facture of those paintings of Manet that his contemporaries labeled as unfinished but were certainly not. (You can always tell a finished Manet, however loosely painted, from a study or sketch: proof, if it’s needed, of how wrong his critics were in their taunts that Manet was too indolent to complete his projects.) More telling, however, is a group of Couture’s informal portraits, which show a fine touch but also, occasionally, real penetration. Yet here too the seeming resemblance between master and student is misleading; Couture’s facility is not Manet’s decisiveness. His influence is more clearly seen in the relative conservatism of Manet’s friend and fellow Couture student Henri Fantin-Latour, whose Homage to Delacroix, an 1864 group portrait with Manet and Baudelaire among its subjects, is also included here. Guégan does not mention Manet’s despairing remark on Couture’s studio, quoted by his fellow student and lifelong friend Antonin Proust, “I don’t know why I’m here. Everything we see around us is ridiculous. The light is false. The shadows are false. When I come to the studio, it seems to me that I’m entering a tomb.” Proust was writing long after the fact and not without prejudice, but his testimony cannot be discounted, all the more so because, contrary to Guégan, Manet’s mature work owes little to Couture in either technique or attitude.

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As Couture dominates the exhibition’s beginning, Baudelaire presides over its next section. Manet’s acquaintance with the poet, ten years his elder, developed rapidly after his first Salon appearance in 1861. (He had been rejected two years earlier.) But he had already read Les Fleurs du Mal, and certain of his paintings had Baudelairean overtones. An 1862 portrait of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, shows her in a pose that is at once hallucinatory and hilarious. She is reclining on a sofa, her features harsh and her bearing reminiscent more of a vampire raising herself from the coffin than of a conventional odalisque, and her voluminous white skirts have swollen to immense proportions, as if clouds were about to envelop her. Nothing like this strange portrait would be painted again until Matisse or Beckmann. It becomes stranger in the context of Baudelaire’s famous words in an 1865 letter to Manet: “You are only the first in the decrepitude of your art.”

What keeps those words ringing in our ears is their ambiguity. What did the poet really mean? Was it, “Alas, in our day painting has fallen into decadence, but at least in this bad time you are the best there is—that is, the least decadent”? This is the position taken by the novelist Philippe Sollers in the exhibition catalog, when he asserts that those who laughed at Olympia were the true moderns, “totally ignorant petits bourgeois,” while Manet was the true classicist. Or did Baudelaire mean, rather, “Painting is heading into decay and you are the captain leading the charge—you are the avant-garde of decadence, that is, the most decadent of all”? This reflects the perennial cultural pessimism that will never be refuted or proven, but is as integral to Baudelaire as his modernism. Perhaps that’s where the poet and the painter parted ways, intellectually.

If Guégan is on thin ice when he overemphasizes Couture, he goes off the rails when he uses Manet’s few works on Christian themes, painted in 1864–65, as evidence of what he calls Manet’s genuine “attachment to the God of Scripture.” There is no biographical evidence in Manet’s writings for this claim, and even if there were, these paintings would contradict it. The best of them is The Dead Christ With Angels (1864). Its Christ is no God, and the death it depicts is irrevocable. One believes in the former life of this man to the same extent that one sees that there can be no hope in his resurrection. As for the angels, they appear rather as lovely young actresses in angel costumes; they represent the artifice that sets off the veracity of the scene, which stirs our pity, just as the light that caresses the face of the girl on the right, the one supporting Christ, sets off the shadow that bathes his unseeing eyes and separates him from us definitively. The miracle of this painting—to borrow the terminology—is that it is at once a sophisticated pastiche of art history and a plea for empathy. Artifice and realism reinforce each other in a direct challenge to the Salon’s conception of history painting, not in expression of piety.

Guégan is not always wrong. His skeptical view of Manet’s supposed move toward Impressionism in the 1870s, for instance, is bracing. He doesn’t deny that Manet might have learned a thing or two from the younger painters who’d learned so much from him. His palette did become more brilliant and the weave of his brush marks looser as he became more drawn to daylight, even indoors; see how the sun pours in on Lady With Fans (Portrait of Nina de Callias) (1873–74). Yet where painters like Monet and Renoir gave a rhythmic regularity to their brushstrokes—which lends their works a sense of restfulness that has allowed them to be mistaken for a visual sort of easy listening—a painting like Manet’s The Croquet Party (1873) is imbued with a sense of agitation that belies its ostensibly bland subject matter, especially with the foliage that covers the sky like threatening storm clouds. One might be tempted to read some social or psychological drama into the scenario—to see the male figure in the background as somehow alienated from the foreground group involved in the match—but that angle isn’t especially rewarding. Manet was more interested in the multitude of ways he could apply his paint to describe the visual complexity of all the detail we normally overlook in a seemingly simple outdoor scene—a task he seems to have experienced as a struggle. This détente with Impressionism is as much a parenthesis within Manet’s project as was his experiment with religious themes.

Yet without such experiments with Impressionism, the paintings of cafe life that began to occupy Manet toward the end of the 1870s, bringing him closer to Degas, would have been inconceivable. These culminated in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which ought to be the climax of any big show of Manet but has remained in London at the Courtauld Institute. This loss might have been turned into a gain if Guégan had taken it as license to conclude the exhibition on an unexpected note, with the still lifes that Manet painted at the very end of his life. But Guégan downplays them instead, explaining that Manet never abandoned the old idea of an artistic hierarchy in which “paintings with multiple figures and an indirect narrative…are an accomplishment of an altogether taller order than the seascapes and still lifes.” He’s right. Manet wanted to challenge the conventional sense of what history painting could be, not abolish it. For Guégan, “the end of the story” lies with the political Manet and a “return to rhetoric and action.” This might well be the direction Manet would have taken, had time allowed. But what could be less rhetorical than either version of Manet’s last political painting? The escape from imprisonment on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia by the radical agitator Henri Rochefort in 1874 must have been a dramatic event, but Manet did not view it that way in 1882. His are paintings of uncertainty, of waiting—men stuck in a frail craft on rough waters, heading nowhere, bewitched by the light glinting off the waves.

Manet’s health had been deteriorating since 1879; the cause was syphilis. Given the circumstances, it’s astonishing that he was able to complete A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which is not only his masterpiece but his testament, a painting full of paradox and irresolvable mystery. And yet another painting from 1882, the fiercely attentive still life Flowers in a Glass Vase, could just as easily be that testament, such are the perceptual complexities Manet discovered in this everyday sight, and the grace with which he mastered them. It’s one of a series of some twenty flower paintings that Manet completed between the time he sent A Bar at the Folies-Bergère to the Salon in May 1882 and his last day in his studio, 
March 1, 1883. Even some of Manet’s detractors had kind words for the still lifes that were always worked into his grand compositions, from Le Déjeuner to The Bar, but this had been but the backside of a repeated complaint, that he painted the human figure with no more soul than a still life object. In Flowers in a Glass Vase he finally gives his rejoinder: Who paints the human form with more life than I paint these flowers? For Manet, that’s the end of the story. Even behind the back of a misconceived exhibition, great painting like his tells its own tale.