Édouard Manet (1832-83) travelled to Madrid which he described as "a pleasant town, full of entertaining things to do" in August 1865. It was the era of France's craze for all things Spanish, and visiting the Prado Museum, He was particularly impressed by Velasquez's Pablo de Valladolid: he told the painter Fantin-Latour that it was, "the most astonishing piece of painting ever done... the background disappears: it is air which surrounds the fellow, dressed all in black and full of life". Manet returned to Paris, set on achieving a similar effect on his own canvas; in a letter to Charles Baudelaire written on 27th March 1866 describes the subject of the consequent painting (in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay) as "...a fifer from the light-infantry guards".
In the words of Honore Daumier "The Fifer" (1866) "is so flat it resembles a playing card." It is in fact one of the oddest "portraits" of Victorine Meurent: she was one of several models who sat for the painting, and as a result, her eyes peer out from the face of another. The fifer’s intense but abstracted gaze and light, half-formed eyebrows seem lifted directly from "The Street Singer", and the hand that blocks Victorine’s mouth in that painting is echoed here by the fife before the boy’s lips. The powerful effect of "The Fifer" is in large part due to an inspired use of just a few strong colours. The rich black and red blocks of colour in the fifer's tunic and trousers are weighted down by the areas of sharp white. Manet loved black and unlike the Impressionists, valued it highly as a colour. Recent analysis has shown that he mixed pigments such as cobalt blue, yellow earth, and chrome orange with ivory black, to create tones in the black.
Emile Zola, after "extending a hand of friendship to this painter who had been banned from the Paris Salon by a group of fellow artists," wrote in L'Evenement on 7 May 1866,
"Of all Manet's works the one I prefer is certainly The Fifer, a work which this year was refused."
After describing the subject the novelist, wrote that:
"I do not think it is possible to achieve a more forceful effect with such uncomplicated means. M. Manet is by temperament incisive, and he can be trenchant. He fixes his subjects forcefully, with no fear of Nature's asperities; he does not hesitate to proceed from white to black, and he gives their full vigour to the different objects, which stand out clearly from one another. Quite naturally he tends to see things in simple, vigorous patches. Indeed, it may be said of him that he is content to find the right colours, then to juxtapose them on the canvas."
The art critic Pierre Courthion has described how:
"In this work, Manet has for the first time flooded the entire canvas with light. The boy, facing us squarely and bathed in brilliance, stands against a flat, luminous background. The bold treatment of the subject is one of those master strokes that can be risked only by innovators fired by the joy of discovery."
The fife was used to convey commands through the army.
- 1866 - The painting having been rejectedby the Salon jury under the pretext that its modeling was flat, was displayed along with others in Manet's studio in the Rue Guyot.
- 1867 - Manet exhibited the painting in a wooden pavilion near the Place de l'Alma, in respect of which Antonin Proust noted: "Every self-respecting painter in Paris turned up at the Manet Exhibition. They all went wild with laughter... All the papers without exception followed their lead." The same year, in La Revue du XIXe siecle, Zola commented: "One of our great contemporary landscape artists has said that The Fifer looks like 'a costume-dealer's signboard,' and I agree with him if what he means is that the young musician's uniform has been handled with the simplicity of a fashion sketch."