Edouard Manet's "Old Musician" is among the grandest pictures in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art. It is thoroughly familiar. Yet "Manet and Modern Paris," now at the museum, treats that haunted picture with such unexpected freshness -- diminishing its mystery while deepening its melancholy -- that the viewer feels as if he's seeing it for the first time.

"Manet and Modern Paris" -- a 100-object exhibition of oils, prints and drawings, photographs of Paris, and works by other artists -- does Manet a great service. Its motive is revisionist, its message antiformalist. It corrects old misreadings of that honest master's tough and moving art.

The Parisian Edouard Manet (1832-83), at least the Manet conjured up in darkened college classrooms, seems strangely insubstantial. He hovers there between the realist Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and the impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), an oddly ghost-like figure, divorced from his city and detached from real life. Frequently, and foolishly, Manet is described as an "art for art's sake" painter. The standard college textbooks, H.W. Janson's for example, argue that he painted "for esthetic effect alone," that he always championed flatness, and that his art "attests his devotion to 'pure painting' -- to the belief that brush strokes and color patches themselves, not what they stand for" matter.

The gallery's exhibit makes nonsense of such claims.

Its focus, most refreshingly, is on content, not on style. It asks us to consider not only Manet's outlining, patterning and brushwork -- but the patient Paris whores, the chuffing locomotives, the indigents and toffs, slaughters and amusements that he chose to paint. This show makes his modernity seem modern once again. It re-attaches him, at last, to his city and his time.

It was organized by Theodore Reff of Columbia University. Reff understands full well that the four amazing Manets at the center of this show all owned by the gallery -- "The Old Musician" (1862), "The Dead Toreador" (1864), "The Gare Saint-Lazare" (1873) and "The Ball of the Opera" (1873) -- are more than merely monuments of modernism's triumph. They may celebrate the sudden, unconcealed brush stroke and prophecy of Picasso's Saltimbanque paintings, they may attack old rules of finish and perspective -- but they do something more than that. They speak of politics, technologies and the injustices of life.

It is easy, for example, to view the six strange figures in "The Old Musician" as figments from a vision, gathered without reason in some rural vastness beyond time. But the picture's eerie space is not some dreamed-up limbo. Nor is it just an exercise in patterning and flatness. It represents a real place behind the Parc Monceau, a "huge vacant lot" cleared of stinking slums in the 1850s while ruthless Baron Haussmann was shoving his broad boulevards through the old neighborhoods of Paris.

And the people in the picture -- although they take their poses, and their costumes, too, from older works of art by the Le Nains and Watteau -- are more than mere quotations. Before we leave this show we know exactly who they are.

Manet's Paris viewers would have recognized their faces. The old man with the violin is one Jean Lagre ne, a gypsy street musician well known in the neighborhood (an 1865 photo of his bearded face is included in the show); the old man strangely cropped at the extreme right is "an old Jew with a white beard" whose name was Gue'roult; the cloaked fellow in the top hat is a man called Colardet, a rag picker -- and absinthe addict -- whom Manet portrayed more than once; the walleyed boy in brown may well be Alexandre, a sad and deranged child who sometimes did odd jobs in the artist's studio. These refugees, these sufferers -- the gypsy and the Wandering Jew and the young Pierrot in white -- are the homeless poor of Paris, people of the street, victims of the urban renewal of their time.

While the painters of the French salons dressed their figures in fresh togas, Manet refused such artifice. "That is really stupid," he insisted bluntly. "We must be of our time and paint what we see."

He believed, as did his friend Baudelaire, that the modern artist's duty was to portray modern life. "The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present," wrote Baudelaire, "is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of present-ness."

Present-ness, of course, decays, but these Manets had it once. One feels it in their croppings and harsh grids, in the way these freely painted pictures recognize the then-new medium of photography. One feels it in their once-startling frankness, and in their backgrounds, too.

The little girl in white in his "Gare Saint-Lazare" is not entranced by a flower, but by something new and noisy, by one of the locomotives that in the late 19th century changed the face of France.

By the end of the 18th century there were 900 cafe's in Paris. By the end of the next century there were 27,000 -- and modern cafe' life, with its gaiety and sadness, was a central subject of Manet's modern art. The vacant-eyed young woman with the unlit cigarette in Manet's "The Plum" (1877-78) would have been instantly recognized, at least by Manet's audience, as one of the prostitutes who haunted the cafe's "sitting dejectedly on benches, wearing their elbows out on marble-topped tables . . . with their heads in their hands." Unlike the frothy art of earlier French painters, Manet's pulls no punches. The gentlemen in tall silk hats in "The Ball of the Opera" are not, as modern viewers might easily suspect, raising money for some charity. The ball was where such gentlemen made contact with the demimonde. They are there to pick up whores.

Even the "Dead Toreador" is more than what it seems to be. It is full of intimations of the civil strife that tortured 19th-century France. The corpse's pose, as Reff points out, is that used by Daumier to show a victim of the soldiery, and Manet would repeat it in his lithograph, "Civil War," in 1871.

The show has been installed in nine thematic sections -- "The City Viewed," "The Railroad Station," "The Cafe' and the Cafe'-Concert," "The Theater and the Opera," "Outside Paris: The Race Track," "Outside Paris: The Beach," "The Street as Public Theater," "The Street as Battleground," and "The Public Holiday." Manet was a true boulevardier. "He personified," it was said, "the sentiments and customs of Parisians, raised to their highest power." He always wore a top hat when he strode the streets of Paris; he carried kid gloves and a walking stick. And he painted what he saw.

Reff's thoughtful exhibition, which marks the centenary of the master's death, makes that city come to life. Though his show stars Manet, Reff has borrowed other pictures of the time -- by Toulouse-Lautrec, Ge'ro me, Daumier, Monet, Vuillard and other Paris painters -- to make his points explicit. One of these, a beach scene by Degas from the National Gallery, London, is enough to justify a visit to this show. It has been handsomely installed in the gallery's East Building. It closes March 6.