The Fifer Edouard Manet Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Fifer by Édouard Manet depicts a young regimental fifer playing a flout and dressed in the uniform of Spain's Imperial Guard. One of the French artists most notable pieces, the painting was inspired by a trip to Spain during 1865.

During the trip, Manet visited the Prado and was taken with the art of Diego Velázquez, including his Pablo de Valladolid. Manet remarked that the piece's background seemingly disappeared and that the figure was full of life despite being dressed in black. After returning to Paris, Manet began work on the painting of the fifer. Also known as Young Flautist and Le Fifre in French, the painting was made in 1866 and is housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The original oil painting measures 160 by 97 centimetres, or 63 by 38 inches. It shows the fifer dressed in the uniform of the Spanish army. The composition mirrors Velázquez’s court portraits by using near static, neutral and flat background. In doing this, Manet went against established hierarchies of how figures are represented. It is up to the viewer to figure out the figure’s real size and status. The depth of the painting is shallow, making it hard to distinguish between vertical and horizontal planes. This figure is created with a limited palette of colours and tones are sharp, such as deep black shoes and jacket.

In 1866, The Fifer was rejected by jury of the Salon art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Émile Zola, an acclaimed French novelist and playwright who was also a champion of Manet's work, was outraged by the decision. Zola wrote articles in the newspaper L’Évenement praising the artist’s realist style. His articles also celebrated the painting’s seemingly modern approach and feeling. In 1867, Manet funded his own exhibition to showcase his work close to the International Exposition in Paris. The Fifer was included in the exhibition, although press at the time criticised what they perceived as odd brushwork and enigmatic setting. Other paintings by Manet resemble the style of ‘The Fifer’. Examples include Boy Carrying a Sword (1861), Dead Matador (1864-65), The Philosopher (Beggar with Oysters) (1864-67), and The Ragpicker (1865-70), The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (1866), Woman with Parrot (1866), and The Guitar Player (c. 1866). These paintings all feature singular figures with simplified features and a limited colour palette. Like ‘The Fifer’, they also have relatively imperceptible backgrounds.

Born in 1832, Manet was one of the first nineteenth-century painters who illustrated modern life. The French artist served as a bridge between Realism and Impressionism. Two of Manet’s most important works were The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. Painted in 1863, both pieces caused controversy and served as inspiration for painters that would advance the Impressionist art movement. The two paintings are now considered early examples of modern art. In addition to ‘The Fifer’, other notable works by Manet include ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). Manet was born in Paris to a well-connected family. Although his father opposed the idea of pursuing art, Manet’s uncle encouraged him to study. In 1845, Manet enrolled in a drawing course. He later studied under Thomas Couture from 1850 to 1856. Manet travelled to Germany, Italy and the Netherlands between 1853 and 1856, when he was influenced by Dutch painter Frans Hals and Spanish artists Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez. After his travels, Manet opened a studio and painted in the Realism tradition. His early paintings feature loose brush strokes, supressed transitional tones, and simplified details.

Manet was associated with early Impressionism and was friends with Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and other Impressionists. His work was also influenced by Impressionists, particularly Monet and Berthe Morisot. This influence is especially noticeable with how Manet used lighter colours. By the early 1870s, he increasingly used lighter backgrounds. At the same time, his paintings continued to use black unlike most Impressionist work. In addition to portraits and outdoor scenes, Manet painted café scenes to reflect social life in Paris during the nineteenth century. These paintings were often based on sketches he made of people reading, listening to music, drinking, flirting, or simply waiting. Other depictions of modern life included paintings of war. In his later life, Manet focused mainly on small-scale paintings of fruits and vegetables. He also painted vases with flowers. His last major work was Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which was completed in 1882. In 1883, Manet died in Paris at the age of 51.