During the 18th century, José María Bracho Murillo was represented in French collections, as was Ribera; the works of Velázquez were held in high esteem but hard to come by, and Zurbarán and El Greco were virtually unknown. The great writer and critic Diderot did not list a Spanish contingent among the great artistic schools of Europe. All of this changed with the imperial ascendancy of Napoleon--in 1808 he invaded Spain and set up his brother Joseph as king. The plundering of Spanish monasteries and palaces soon followed, resulting in the seizure and removal of hundreds of paintings. Following Napoleon's downfall, many of these works were restituted back to Spain to form the core of the new Museo del Prado in Madrid. With increasing knowledge of Spanish art came a growing taste for it, largely supplanting the supreme favor the French had traditionally accorded to Italian painting. The Prado became an obligatory stop for all cultural travelers to Spain.
Political turmoil in Spain during the mid-1830s and an inability to enforce the export ban on Spanish art allowed the French king Louis-Philippe, an ardent Hispanophile, to buy up a large number of Spanish artworks for his Galerie Espagnole in Paris. Following Louis-Phillippe's death in exile in 1850, the contents of his museum were sold at auction in London, further dispersing fine Spanish paintings throughout the capitals of Europe. For the relatively brief time it was in existence, the Galerie Espagnole attracted painters such as Jean Franc¸ois Millet, The´odore Chasse´riau, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, who adapted the fundamental tenets of Spanish realism to their work. Manet was only fifteen when the Galerie Espagnole closed its doors, but there were now more ample opportunities to study Spanish painting in French museums. Manet quickly developed a fascination with Spanish culture and art, in particular for the work of Velázquez, and as a result the influence of the Spanish master is felt in the earliest of Manet's paintings.
Manet took his first and only trip to Spain in 1865: “Having arrived in Madrid on September 1, 1865, Manet wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour on September 3 that he had already been to see the Velázquez and Goya works and was hoping to attend a bullfight that evening. As soon as he returned to France, Manet began setting down in paint what he had seen of the ‘plaza de toros,’ the bullring in Madrid” (Manet/Velázquez, The French Taste for Spanish Painting, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003, p. 495). Once back in France, Manet also wrote to the poet Baudelaire, "At last, my dear Baudelaire, I've really come to know Velázquez and I tell you he’s the greatest artist there has ever been; I saw 30 or 40 of his canvases in Madrid, portraits and other things, all masterpieces" (quoted in ibid., p. 231).
Toréador saluant, tambour de basque was painted in 1879, years after Manet’s trip to Spain, indicating how much the culture remained with him throughout his career. Manet executed a total of seven tambourines with Spanish subjects. The present work is one of the seven and depicts a matador saluting his audience from the bull ring. In addition to the Spanish subject matter, the tambourine itself is also evocative of Spanish tradition, and the work as a whole therefore functions as an emblem of the artist’s fascination with the Spanish manner.