Edouard Manet's Mme Manet in the Conservatory, 1879.  (The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo/ Photo Borre Hostland).

LONDON - It is extraordinary but true that there has never been a major Manet exhibition in Britain, so Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy is a milestone. I was lucky enough to be taken round the show this week by MaryAnn Stevens, who has done such a brilliant job of curating it. There was no point, she says, in trying to mount a general retrospective, as this has been done in Paris pretty definitively in 1983. So she decided to focus on an aspect of Manet’s work that has not previously been the subject of a major show – his portraiture. This in turn sheds fascinating light on the artist’s determination to find new ways of painting modern life.

As I walked among a succession of compelling works (some never before exhibited in this country), several specific points struck me: first, that although Manet was a friend of the Impressionists and sympathetic to them, his technique is not really Impressionist. The colour black – anathema to pure Impressionism – was too central to his method. Indeed he is much more open to the artists of the past: at various points Rubens, Velasquez, Frans Hals and, of course, Goya had a significant influence on his style. He is also a bold experimenter, prepared for instance to subvert the rules of perspective and play with different viewpoints in the same painting in a way that prefigures Cezanne. Finally, Manet’s social origins are important. Had he not had a comfortable private income, he could not have afforded to paint revolutionary pictures that might not sell. The same applied to Degas, but not to Pissarro.

Edouard Manet's Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872. (Musee d Orsay, Paris. Acquis avec la participation du Fonds du Patrimoine, de la Fondation Meyer, de Chine Times Group et d un mecenat coordonne par le quotidien Nikkei, 1998/ Photo copyright RMN (Musee d'Orsay) / Herve Lewandowski).

But it is as a handler of paint that Manet gives the most pleasure, attains closest to perfection. If I had to choose one painting to walk away with from this exhibition, it would be the marvellous little Portrait of Stephane Mallarme of 1876. It is a perfect combination of subtle literary characterisation and glorious painterly fluency.

Manet: Portraying Life runs at London’s Royal Academy from 26 January to 14 April. The exhibition is organised in conjunction with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

Philip Hook is Senior Specialist in the Impressionist & Modern Art department.