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Edouard Manet was an etcher and lithographer of the first importance. In the etching medium, his line is deft, rapid, and incisive. He eliminates detail and ignores the picturesque. Manet was not concerned with the past: he lived and worked wholly in the present. For the period from 1862 to 1882, he may be said to represent the future. He knew it and said as much, confident in the value of his art and message.
His needle scratches the copper rather than working it. Shading, as a mean and middle course, did not interest him. For him the essence of the print lay in the outright clash of black against white, the white of the paper which he never neglected and used most tellingly for its contrast with black, but never the black of shadow, penumbra or chiaroscuro.
Though he had looked to Spain and assimilated the great lesson of Goya, his etchings remain strikingly original, for he plagiarized no one. He interpreted and transposed in accordance with his own genius. He did so even in reproducing his own paintings or drawings. His patterning of lines, his forthrightness, his sobriety and his emphasis on contrasts all went against the ideas of his contemporaries in the medium of etching. But he sowed the seeds of the future. The few who in his day knew and appreciated his etchings made no mistake about his achievement as an innovator. After him, the path and direction were charted out for the etchers to come, whom he freed from the obligation to “prettify.” Thanks to him, they could express themselves with a freedom, which, but for him, would have been denied them for many years to come.
As a lithographer, Manet was perhaps more direct, more allusive, more revolutionary. In this medium, too, he took to heart the lessons of Goya and Daumier. Much more famous than the latter in his lifetime owning to the “scandal” crated by his paintings, he broke more sharply than Daumier with romantic lithography and its spirit of studied, picturesque precision. Ignoring the striking detail of the individual, Manet was the lithographer of the crowd and rendered that crowd by a mass of teeming or static patches. This is equally true of his etchings. No one had ever ventured to draw a crowd so freely as he did in his lithograph, “The Races.”
As a printmaker, then, Manet stands out as a leader as much as he does in painting. More forcibly and sweepingly than Corot or Jongkind, he broke down the barriers of convention, bequeathing to the printmakers who came after him an exhilarating freedom of approach and style.