A Tasty Feast for the Eyes

In his early work, Manet painted several fairly conventional still lifes, with groups of flowers or fruit arranged on a surface as if sitting for a portrait. More unconventionally, he introduced still-life elements, like footnotes, into his paintings of people. They are almost emblems, hinting, perhaps, at some trait or attribute of the person portrayed. A lemon, for example, appears in a number of figure paintings. Such still-life touches might be the artist's stamp.

These lemons also make an acidic spot of color against which other colors are contrasted and sharpened. And they bring to the sensuous quality of his paint surface an element that not only appeals to the sense of sight, but also to the taste buds. "Taste" can be gastronomic or aesthetic.

Traditionally, still life had often been about food. In his later paintings, Manet brings greater freshness to this tradition by painting small pictures devoted to an isolated item: a lemon, an apple - or a bunch of asparagus. These are no longer part of a portrait, but just there, hardly even a composition, painted with unfussed directness and relish.

These little still lifes have the air of gifts, though in the case of the asparagus, the painting was sold, and thereby hangs a tale. Manet asked his buyer for 800 francs. Generously, the patron gave him 1,000. So Manet painted another small oil of a single asparagus stalk, and sent it to him with the note: "There was one missing from your bunch."

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