Did you ever have the experience of thinking you knew someone really well, only to have him or her, or someone else, reveal to you a whole different side to their personality and/or character? For example, critics of Andrew Wyeth thought they knew him, thought they had him pigeonholed as a cold, dry, painter of Americana trivia. Even his strongest admirers bought into this with the added view of him as a man who saw beauty where no on else could see it, revealing it to us in that light through his work. Then came the discovery of the "Helga" series and critics and admirers both had to tear up all their preconceived, etched-in-stone notions of the man to rethink him as a much more human, flawed, warm, loving, feeling, man than they'd ever imagined. Today, critics and admirers alike are also doing this with regard to another great artist, Edouard Manet, except that in his case, it's happening 117 years after his death.
Think about the man and his work. What paintings come to mind? Olympia?, Luncheon on the Grass?, The Bar at the Follies Bergere? His Fifer or his Matador? His portraits, perhaps? If you think you know Manet by these marks, you're missing a huge chunk of the man. French experts at the Orsay Museum in Paris estimate about twenty percent of him, in fact. Fully twenty percent of Manet's works consisted of still-lifes, particularly flowers. Except for Henri de Fantin-Latour, who painted practically nothing else, Manet was the foremost painter of still-lifes during his lifetime. And whereas Fantin-Latour's still-lifes and florals were merely beautiful, Manet's were that and more. Manet jerked the lowly subjects of his still-lifes out of all cultural or narrative context and gave them a life of their own. Not even Chardin had ever done that before.
In 1880, three years before his death, a wealthy collector saw Manet's Bunch of Asparagus and offered him much more than his asking price. Manet took the money, of course. A few weeks later he sent the collector, Charles Ephrussi, another painting, a small work in oil, this time of a single stalk of asparagus, with the note: "There was one missing from your bunch." No artist ever had a greater love or devotion for the simple still life. Even in his portraits, or his other major works, there was seldom absent the well placed, well rendered still life. Even his most vocal critics at the time (and he had a slew of'em) allowed that he was one of the best at painting inanimate objects...though often pointedly isolating his virtuosity to this one genre. Some viewed all his work as still life, in the most direct, limited meaning of the term.
And indeed, there may be some validity to this claim, though in a modern context, it is by no means a negative analysis. A painting is, after all, an inanimate object, and its subject is also inanimate. Manet's Child with Cherries depicts a boy with his hand in a bowl of ripe cherries. Two have fallen out and are frozen in mid-air. Manet illustrates not a scene but a moment. The boy was Alexandre, his beloved assistant. The painting was finished shortly after Alexandre hanged himself in Manet's studio. Yet, despite an obvious emotional involvement, the work is more a still life than a portrait.