Still life, wrote Manet, is the "touchstone of painting". Fed up with the kind of didactic art that was currently in fashion, laboriously filled with "grandes machines", as he called them, Manet maintained that "a painter can say everything he wants to with fruit or with flowers or with clouds". He then went on to say that he would "like to be the Saint Francis of still life". But don't imagine Manet as a provincial in a hair shirt: this most urbane of painters, Proustian in his elegance, was after honesty in painting, and that meant painting the simple, everyday things in life.
The simple things for Manet may not have been the humble spuds that van Gogh would later immortalise, or scenes of toiling peasants like those by Millet, but oysters (poor man's fare back then) and peonies, bar scenes and portraits of his friends. If you like painting, then "Manet: les natures mortes" - around 80 still lifes assembled by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris - is the show for you. It's a little like being invited to a banquet with a succession of mouth-watering dishes, all of which you can eat, yet still feel wonderful at the end. There are tables dressed with white linen "like freshly fallen snow", on which baskets of fruit and heaped fish cast strong shadows against coal-black backgrounds, with the kind of drama deployed by the Spanish painters who so influenced Manet. But there are also quieter pictures, such as the four mandarins that sit unassumingly on their white cloth yet glow like points of light; or the peaches piled up on a wooden palette, their skins brushed with the lightest of down.
Manet was also passionate about flowers (he grew the peonies that feature in so many of his paintings), but the decision to embark on a series of pictures of flowers was probably a desperate attempt to make his paintings acceptable to an extremely hostile press and public. Both his Dejeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia had been rejected by a scandalised Salon. One contemporary critic ascribed two causes to the "ludicrous" appearance of Manet's Olympia: "first, an almost infantile ignorance of the basis of drawing; and second, a pronounced taste for unbelievable vulgarity." He also said that visitors only flocked to gawp at "the ridiculous creature called Olympia" for the pleasure of being shocked. Manet, who never courted notoriety, was obliged to set up his own, alternative stand while the Exposition Universelle of 1867 was in progress. Among the 50 canvases that he exhibited were a number of still lifes; even his detractors had to concede, in the words of Zola, "qu'il peint bien les objets inanimes".
One of Manet's most arresting paintings of peonies in this show has a single stem strung up, head down, its blood-red bloom lying three-quarters of the way down the picture; beneath the bloom is the instrument that dealt the coup de grace - a pair of secateurs. Its composition mimics exactly an 18th-century painting by Chardin of a dead rabbit hung up by its hind legs, but the quality of the paintwork is unique to Manet. The paint is generously applied, yet the brushstrokes are swift as they course down the length of the flower, both describing its brief life and bringing the viewer rapidly to the cause of its demise. In another painting of two white peonies, the presence of secateurs is betrayed only by a dull gleam in the dark that surrounds a dazzling passage of white paint.
Manet died at the age of 51 from a form of syphilis, having spent the last years of his life in considerable pain. While recuperating from hydrotherapy treatment, he took up painting in watercolours - simple, direct sketches painted in his garden, which he would use to decorate notes he was writing to friends. Most of these charming billets-doux were destined for women friends - Isabelle Lemonnier, a particular favourite, received 16 illustrated letters during the summer of 1880. One of her notes has a purple and green plum painted at the top, with a few lines underneath that read: "A Isabelle, cette mirabelle, et la plus belle c'est Isabelle." Another has a large, slightly wobbly peach (which, if you bit into it, would be woolly); underneath, Manet complains that the peaches where he is confined are ugly.
These watercolours and Manet's later oil paintings show a marked simplicity, a desire to paint the object being itself. Many are paintings of just one thing. A bunch of asparagus lies on a bed of bright green leaves in a composition that manages to be commanding and yet apparently without artifice, divided into three blocks of colour: sap green, the asparagus colour Proust called iridescent mauve "not of this world", and brown. The painting is as bold as a tricolour turned on its side. Next to the bunch of asparagus is a small painting of a single asparagus. This was painted for Charles Ephrussi (who was one of the models for Proust's character Swann) as a gift to thank him for paying F1,000 for the painting of the bunch of asparagus, when the artist had asked for only F800. "Your bunch was one short," read the note accompanying the painting.
These paintings were so simple - to some contemporaries, blunt - that they were perceived in some quarters as subversive, manifesting signs of an insolent modernity. These were not, after all, still lifes in the European tradition (hugely ornate and artificial), but paintings - like Chardin's - that called a spade a spade, not an allegory of a garden instrument. Not only did the spade tell no story, it was just a square of paint, and in that direction lay abstraction.
"Manet: les natures mortes" is at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, until 7 January 2001
Michaela Gall is a painter