I've recently been looking at Manet's last flower paintings - they are poignant for any number of reasons. Tragically they were his last works as he was dying whilst painting the series (they were usually bouquets brought to him by friends, which he would arrange loosely in crystal glasses and vases). What strikes you is their astounding handling of paint and control of colour.
Manet had always controlled colour to a degree akin to perfect pitch in a singer, but in his earlier work, the ambitious design of his figure compositions meant that the use of contrast, so glaring in the flower paintings, is usually more of a side show to the commanding gaze of a dominant figure for instance. However it is this side show that gives the works their frisson and often times their power. You notice these passages and they tend to hit you from the side rather than head on , a sort of oblique punch that knocks you off balance as you never saw it coming. In these pitch perfect passages of colour the balancing of tempered greys, green -tinged oranges, pinks -usually salmon, all meet with their mirror complimentary. Furthermore subtle shifts of light created by half tones (a trait of Delacroix) amplify each colour. In Manet's work black is a constant, the absence of light; and it followed him until it found its parallel in an absence of life, yet black on this journey never looked so light-giving as it did in a Manet painting. Even in a sketch, Manet finds his dark shadows first and uses them to build form. A dazzling ability to suggest three dimensional space, his works are all the more remarkable for not puncturing the picture plane with this illusion - quite the contrary , paint as a skin was never flatter (it was this shocking nakedness that first so irked the art-watching middle classes - poster art, Japanese, flat and confrontational) Shadows were the building blocks of his compositions and his brush dances about the canvas looking for those killer contrasts to be unleashed alongside. Those contrast passages are the ones that always induce the 'wow' factor.
A great Manet really can 'choke' you and is as satisfying as a peach in that ripe yet green crunchy phase just on the tipping point of soft juiciness. His work is spartan and sumptuous in equal measure. It outflanks you and continues to induce gasps to this day. These last works are heartbreakingly beautiful, they give you confidence to listen to your own innermost voice as they are spoken with such a humane voice in themselves. They demand an honesty in a viewer as they too were created with such an unfaltering spirit - all the more astonishing in light of his failing health at the time. What more can you ask of an artist?