Edouard Manet was the quintessential modern artist of his time. For him, this meant he had a responsibility to mix history and the present day, to mix genres and the classes, to mix entertainment and relaxation, paintings and prints. He turned everything from frescos to daguerreotypes into etchings – a truly modern and progressive approach to art. He also focused on the exotic and the erotic in a way that set him apart from most artists of the past.
Manet’s etchings are almost all connected in some way with his paintings. However, Manet’s etchings do not resemble a debased version of his paintings, but instead they are equivalents and skilled works in their own right. Manet himself placed great value on his etchings, presenting them at the Salon alongside his paintings and in his personal exhibitions.
Manet embarked upon his career as a graphic artist in 1860 when Paris was in the middle of reviving etching as a fine art. As usual, he allied himself with the outstanding avant-garde movement of his time – printmaking. From the very start of his career as an etcher, Manet acted as an individual, developing and exploiting his own vocabulary of line and tone. He seems to have experimented with two quite distinctive classes of handling. One was a romantic, improvisatory manner, composed of deeply bitten, long, straight lines and active, curved strokes, similar to the style favored by Whistler. The other treatment presents a quiet tonal emphasis. Subtle shading of areas rather than bravura slashes are emphasized by means of hatching with very dense networks of lightly bitten, short strokes.
Manet was not at all interested in the technical complexities of the printmaking processes. He was perfectly content to entrust the actual pulling of proofs to an experienced printer. However, he was an avid collector of prints, and was well versed in the past productions by Rembrandt, Goya, Callot, Canaletto, and Tiepolo. His subject matter often looks back to these artists, and there are indeed direct quotes from their most famed works.