In contrast with Post-Impressionism and the avant-garde trends of the twentieth century the painters of French Naturalism and Impressionism rarely gave verbal expression to their aesthetics. “The most solid base for the work of art is reality constantly studied.” ( Emile Zola) But the word “realism” and the corresponding doctrine provided only an equivocal and vague description of the common ground where different works meet, the place to which they must be assigned on the basis of certain obvious similarities. it is his clairvoyant perception of an outstanding moment in the history of painting that arms Zola with his knowledge.He thinks what he thinks because he sees what he sees. …
“The Impressionists, whilst occupying themselves with cleansing the palette of the bitumen of which the Academy made exaggerated use, whilst also observing nature with a greater love of light, made it their object to escape in the representation of human beings the laws of beauty, such as were taught by the School. And on this point one might apply to them all that one knows of the ideas of the Goncourts and Flaubert, and later of Zola, in the domain of the novel. They were moved by the same ideas; to speak of the one group is to speak of the other. The longing for truth, the horror of emphasis and of false idealism which paralysed the novelist as well as the painter, led the Impressionists to substitute for beauty a novel notion, that of character.”
He could behave at times with an almost feminine excitability in spite of the one trait that, when everything is balanced , seems most persistent in his character whatever the contradictions. For Edouard Manet, this trait was an essentially aristocratic reserve, a self-containment that forbade all casual intimacy and accepted intimacy pf any kind only up to a point- and in turn , respected the privacy of other people.
Quite possibly we read this reserve into Manet’s personality because it is so characteristic of his painting. But this is a legitimate form of acquaintance with an artist. Manet’s friend Emile Zola formulated the idea, basic to virtually all spontaneous response to painting today, that a work of art is first of all a reflection of the temperament of the artist. This would make the painted “Olympia” a truer witness as to he kind of man Manet was than anything the model who posed for it, a girl named Victorine Meurent, might tell us about the Manet she knew over a period of years.
Zola’s definition ( a work of art is ” a bit of creation seen through the medium of a powerful temperament” ) would hold only for art since the Renaissance, when inventive individualism came to be expected of an artist. And it would not hold for an artist who did not have fully the power of expression: how appalling to think that all the Salon painters whose art consisted only of surface exercises were men of corresponding inner vacuity. But Manet’s expression of self must have been complete- to the extent, of course, that he felt the self should be revealed to another.
“To search for, and to express, the true character of a being or of a site, seemed to them more significant, more moving, than to search for an exclusive beauty, based upon rules, and inspired by the Greco-Latin ideal. Like the Flemings, the Germans, the Spaniards, and in opposition to the Italians whose influence had conquered all the European academies, the French Realist-Impressionists, relying upon the qualities of lightness, sincerity and expressive clearness which are the real merits of their race, detached themselves from the oppressive and narrow preoccupation with the beautiful and with all the metaphysics and abstractions following in its train.”
Manet seems never to have doubted that the kind of painting he was doing was exactly what he was after. H
rried abot the reception of his work to such a degree that Berthe Morisot could report finding him, at a Salon opening, standing outside the room where the pictures were hung, afraid to enter for fear of what people might be saying about him. But it never occurred to him to paint in a way calculated to placate his hostile audience; nor did he, as Courbet had done when similarly attacked, enter into public battle in defense of a theory, of his way of painting.
Manet’s painting was his only manifesto, and he seems from the first , and until the end, to have painted the way he did because it was so completely his own way that any modification was impossible for him. As safely as any man who ever painted, manet as a personality may be identified with his art.
“But one can only understand the effort and the faults of the painters grouped around Manet, by constantly recalling to one’s mind their predeliction for character. Before Manet a distinction was made between noble subjects, and others which were relegated to the domain of genre in which no great artist was admitted to exist by the School, the familiarity of their subjects barring from them this rank. By the suppression of the nobleness inherent to the treated subject, the painter’s technical merit is one of the first things to be considered in giving him rank. The Realist-Impressionists painted scenes in the ball-room, on the river, in the field, the street, the foundry, modern interiors, and found in the life of the humble immense scope for studying the gestures, the costumes, the expressions of the nineteenth century.
Their effort had its bearing upon the way of representing persons, upon what is called, in the studio language, the “mise en cadre.” There, too, they overthrew the principles admitted by the School. Manet, and especially Degas, have created in this respect a new style from which the whole art of realistic contemporary illustration is derived. This style had been hitherto totally ignored, or the artists had shrunk from applying it. It is a style which is founded upon the small painters of the eighteenth century, upon Saint-Aubin, Debucourt, Moreau, and, further back, upon Pater and the Dutchmen. But this time, instead of confining this style to vignettes and very small dimensions, the Impressionists have boldly given it the dimensions and importance of big canvases. They have no longer based the laws of composition, and consequently of style, upon the ideas relative to the subjects, but upon values and harmonies.”