Throughout his life, but especially toward its end in 1883, that lion of early modernism, Edouard Manet, loved to paint still lifes. Even in his portraits, his arrangements of things--books, bottles, crockery, flowers, food--are given a prominence that nearly puts them on a par with people. His art wasn't dominated by still life, as Cubism would be; but the inanimate has a large and vital presence in his work. That much is evident from the beautiful show at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, curated by George Maunet, "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings." What one might not have realized before, though, is the role that still life, and especially the painting of flowers, played as an expressive consolation to him in his last years.
Manet's paintings rarely sold (luckily, he had some money of his own). For most of his short career--he was 51 when he died--he was ferociously assailed by nearly every critic and journalist in Paris. (Some of them actually liked his still lifes and reserved their scorn for his portraits and figures.) His greatest paintings, Olympia and Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, which today are among the unquestioned masterpieces of the 19th century and are seen by many as the twin pillars that mark and hold up the entrance to modernism, were pilloried by every man of taste and jeered at by spectators.
There were a few exceptions to this honor roll of stupidity, mainly other painters. Impressionists such as Claude Monet, younger than he, saw Manet as their hero and leader--although he never exhibited with their group. Charles Baudelaire was his friend; Emile Zola famously defended him in 1866 and partially based the implausible chief character of his novel L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) on Manet--though, less famously, he changed his mind after Manet's death and called him "not a very great painter...an incomplete talent."
All in all, Manet had much to be bitter about. Shortly before he died, a friend tried to console him with the thought that he would get his due in the end. "Oh, I know all about justice being done one day," Manet burst out. "It means one begins to live only after one is dead." He died of tertiary syphilis, which he may have inherited from his eminently respectable father, who wanted him to do something more respectable than painting. His death, hastened by gangrene of the leg, was horrific and preceded by a long, slow descent into agony.
And what did he paint during those final years? One last great painting, of a terminally bored barmaid surrounded by a maze of mirror reflections, A Bar at the Folies Bergere. And flowers: many of them exquisite little watercolors (a briar rose, a snail on a leaf) done with rapid, sketchy delicacy, with notes to their recipients, mainly his women friends, written on the same page. Nothing indicates how he was suffering. His love of life and of style was too strong. In their sweet, private brevity, these tiny notes combining script and image are among the most "Japanese" images to come out of a time when japonisme was all the rage--and all the more authentically so for not copying Japanese mannerisms.