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. In this gay picture, which resembles a colored bas-relief, Manet establishes himself as a disciple of Fouquet.
And yet, at the sight of "The Fifer", the critics exclaimed that Manet's painting was flat, as flat as the color woodcuts from Epinal, as they said then. The monumental simplicity which delights us today shocked the adherents of the traditional school. Manet had been criticized for his "sooty" shadows, particularly in "Olympia" and "Dead Christ with Angels." In this picture he sought to take his revenge by modeling with light and using shadows only in the hands. As for the color, Manet has laid it on in large patches, a little after the style of Raphael's portraits. But this too went unoticed.
The model was a boy from the "Garde Imperiale," a young soldier brought to Manet's studio by a Major Lejosne, an officer who often entertained writers and artists, including Baudelaire, in his apartment in the avenue Trudaine. This picture and the "Tragic Actor" were rejected by the jury of the 1866 Salon.
We may recall here what Baudelaire said of the public (and the official jury) in their relation to the artist, "They will never be anything but a clock that runs slow." Zola, after "extending a hand of friendship to this painter who had been banned from the Salon by a group of fellow artists," wrote in L'Evenement on May 7, "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, who had as yet published nothing but the Contes a Ninon, added: "I do not think it is possible to achieve a more forceful effect with such uncomplicated means. M. Manet is by temperment incisive, and he can be trenchant. He fixes his subjects forcefullyl, with no fear of Nature's asperities; he does not hesitate to proceed from white to black, and he gives their full vigor 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 colors, then to juxtapose them on the canvas." The following year, in La Revue du XIXe siecle, Zola resumed his offensive: "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."
But Manet's detractors did not relent. "A knave of diamonds pasted on a door" was what they said of The Fifer.