THAT urbane, Parisian 19th-century painter Edouard Manet was described by one acquaintance as ``the soul of generosity and kindness,'' though he ``was apt to be ironical . . .'' and ``had a formidable wit, at once trenchant and crushing.'' A story about this small, late painting of his, ``A Bunch of Asparagus,'' happily shows the generous side of his humor, however. Charles Ephrussi bought the picture from the artist. The price was 800 francs. But he sent Manet 1,000. So Manet quickly painted a tiny canvas depicting a single stem of asparagus on the edge of a table and sent it to Ephrussi with a note that said: ``Your bunch was one short.''
Not only was this warm-hearted gesture of thanks, so spontaneously made, a charming gift that acknowledged a gift, but also it provides an attractive glimpse of Manet's idea of what art is. He indicated, wittily enough, that he was sending his client an asparagus stem.
In fact, he sent him a painting by Manet. Obviously it appealed to both his humor and his aesthetics to identify his painting so closely with its subject that the one could be thought of as a substitute for the other. He was often called a ``realist'' by contemporaries, and he clearly did enjoy the capacity of painting to imitate or contain the objects of the visible world in the world of painting.
His paintings look as though they were painted with a kind of effortless ease. But that apparent facility was -- on the evidence of friends who saw him at work, and of X-rays of his paintings that show changes as his pictures progressed -- actually deceptive. The un-complicated vitality of his final images was often the result of dissatisfaction and laborious alteration.
The way, for instance, that he has translated the sturdy texture and the succulent tips of these springtime vegetables into a clear sign language of brush and oil paint, making them instantly recognizable, cannot have been particularly spontaneous. The point is, however, that his difficulties are never visible in the end.
His was the art that conceals art; and the appearance of his paintings seems to acknowledge that in essence art is as instant as a gift.
In the same year, 1880, that he painted ``A Bunch of Asparagus'' he formed a habit of sending to his friends affectionate and amusing notes and letters that were decorated with quickly painted sketches. These were often of fruit -- an apple, cherries, a peach, a plum.
To one recipient he sent a cracked chestnut. To another two opened halves of an almond containing a double fruit with, underneath, the word ``Philippine.''
According to a French custom (as the catalog-note for the recent Manet retrospective observes), ``the first of two people to find a double fruit, generally in an almond, and to call out `Philippine!' at their first meeting the next day must receive a present from the other.''
The note concludes that on this occasion Manet was dropping a hint to Isabelle Lemonnier, one of the favorite models of his last years, that she should send him a reply.
Also at this period he made small oil paintings, like that of his single asparagus stem, of a lone lemon on a plate, and of one apple, as if he wanted to concentrate on the pleasure and color of just one tasty motif and relish it for all its individual quality.
Throughout his career the lemon in particular had recurred as a small accent of tangy color in a number of paintings, often for no other apparent reason than enjoyment of its sharp freshness or its mouth-watering suggestion that the effect of a painting, both for viewer and artist, is not unlike the eating of a good fruit.
Manet sometimes further emphasized this analogy by -- in the manner of a 17th-century Dutch still life -- showing his little leitmotif lemon half peeled, with its skin curling springily away from the exposed pith and flesh.
Manet maintained that his art should only be judged whole, that it would be misleading to concentrate too exclusively on isolated paintings. Each work can be seen as part of his entire aim and effort.
His treatment of still life, for instance, can be best understood in terms of his figure paintings, and vice versa. He was sometimes accused in his day of painting people too much as if they were objects in a still life. Perhaps the obverse of this was that he could paint a plum -- or an asparagus stem -- with the same delight and liveliness that he used for painting people.
His bunch of asparagus shoots, tied for market, is painted with a perfect understanding of their purpose: to be cooked and dipped in melted butter and eaten with all due enjoyment.
Manet was a Parisian par excellence. He affected to dislike the countryside, and his paintings of landscapes generally display little more interest in nature than that of a rather unobservant stage-designer. The most natural backgrounds he contrived for portraits were conservatories -- nature potted and housed.
His approach to the fruits of the earth tended to be equally urban. A bunch of flowers represented a gift from one city person to another. In a late painting, he showed a bunch of pinks and clematis in a glass vase with their stems still tied together; perhaps he thought they grew like that. A bunch of violets was for a sophisticated woman's corsage, or might be (as it is in one delectable little oil painting) a present placed on a table with a fan and a note. Asparagus was a delicate item of fine cuisine. Nature for him was merely a tool of man's sociability.
It is the same in that most dazzling of his last large pictures, ``A Bar at the Folies-Berg`eres,'' where a vase with two roses stands on the marble counter next to a cut-glass compote full of the most brilliant tangerines.
Again these are the minutiae of nature seen only as they adorn the city. They are small parts of the art of elegant, civilized, Parisian life as he celebrates it in his art of painting.
But their smallness does not diminish them. They act as surprising, essential touchstones of pure color or piquant flavor to the whole painting.