“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.