Art Criticism

Edouard Manet
Impressions of the Sea
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Edouard Manet is famed for his studies of Parisian life. What’s less well-known is his obsession with the sea. Sue Hubbard was granted a sneak preview of the first ever exhibition of his maritime paintings

When he was only sixteen, the painter, Edouard Manet sailed on a round trip from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro. His father, Auguste, a judge, had expected his son to follow in his footsteps and enter the law, but Edouard was both a disinterested and inadequate student. He did, however, persuade his father that he wanted to become a sailor and in July 1848 took (and failed) the entrance exam for the French naval officers’ school. The exam was only held once a year but a newly enacted law allowed candidates to re-sit the examination if they had served on a French navy or merchant ship whose course crossed the equator. It was thus that the young Manet set sail on a small three mast ship, on what was, in fact, a floating crammer. On board his naval studies did not fare much better than they had on land but, as he wrote to his mother in 1849, he had “developed a reputation during the crossing. All the ship’s officers and all the instructors asked me to make caricatures of them. Even the Captain asked for one, as his Christmas present.” Years later, as a mature painter, he was to write:” I learnt a lot on my trip to Brazil. I spent countless nights watching the play of light and shadow in the ship’s wake.”

Edouard Manet Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama 1864
Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. 1864

The sea and the lure of the deep have, since ancient times, exercised a strong hold over the human imagination. Images of seafaring appear on Egyptian tomb paintings, Minoan frescoes and Greek ceramics. From Jason and the Argonauts to Moby Dick the sea has stood as a potent symbol of human struggle, one which embodies the desire for adventure, mastery and conquest. An awesome natural force, the sea was perceived as an essentially feminine entity from which all life evolved. An arena for both discovery and trade it has also loomed large in the unconscious as a place of mystery and terror representing all that was powerful, fathomless and essentially unknowable. Mediaeval maps illustrated a world surrounded by ocean where mythical monsters lurked, while the marine genre of painting that emerged in Europe during the Renaissance expressed an essentially Christian view-point, depicting the world from on high and integrating human activity into God’s cosmos. The sea remained a relatively unexplored motif in European art before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appearing as little more than a backdrop for battle scenes. In England, Nelson’s naval victories inspired a generation of sea painters, while for the mercantile Dutch, seascapes expressed their national pride in the prosperity acquired through trade. But for France, Catholic, aristocratic and without an extensive sea trade, the sea remained a comparatively undeveloped theme. The paintings that were produced were historic, patriotic accounts of naval battles, though, the plight of doomed sailors clinging to a fragile craft adrift on a boiling, murderous sea in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the “Medusa” of 1819, appealed to a burgeoning Romantic sensibility. And with this growth of Romanticism the sea began to take on ever more complex meanings. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau it was something ‘exotic’ and ‘untamed’, while for other artists and intellectuals it came to represent the mystical and stood as a symbol of personal freedom. For Manet and his contemporaries it provided a new aesthetic challenge, for unlike landscape, the sea was in constant flux; an ever-changing phenomenon that needed its own unique descriptive language.

Edouard Manet Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864
Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864

By the mid-1860s certain critics felt that the tradition of official marine painting was already in decline, just as the young Eduoard Manet was about to begin his investigations into the form, though this had as much to do with nineteenth century social changes as it did with aesthetic ones. For with the development of the railways middle-class Parisians, who may never before have seen the sea, were able to leave behind the soot-chocked cities and within a few hours stroll along the new promenades and indulge in the previously English vogue of sea bathing in the new resorts that were springing up along the Channel coast. The colonisation of villages such as Etretat and Honfleur by painters like the English Richard Parkes Bonington and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey, who had gone there as early as the 1820s to produce illustrated books and travel guides, gave rise to a new genre of painting, the Picturesque, which depicted the workaday life of fishing villages and encouraged tourists to seek out these previously remote locations. All along the Normandy coast the destructive force of the sea, from which man had previously had no protection, was being tamed by architecture; by lighthouses and jetties and the transposed trappings of urban life – hotels, casinos and beach clubs. The tight social rituals and cultural strictures of city life were also being loosened along with women’s stays and the adoption of bathing gear. The beach and the seashore were becoming newly democratic spaces.

Edouard Manet Moonlight over the Port of Bologne 1869
Moonlight over the Port of Bologne, 1869

In fact, there was something of an explosion of marine painting in the 1860s, though not by artists necessarily connected with the Academy or bound by official commissions. For these ‘unofficial’ artists, working en plein air, colour and tone were used to express the sentiment of the place. Manet’s embrace of sea-painting in the summer of 1864 began against this changing social background and coincided with the historic US Civil War naval battle that had recently taken place off the coast of France near Cherbourg. His imaginative re-inaction of the encounter between the U.S.S Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama was, within a few weeks of its execution, on view to the Parisian public in Alfred Cadart’s fashionable gallery. In this powerful monochromatic painting Manet conjures all the immediacy of the battle. By the 1860s writers such as Jules Michelet, Baudelaire, Hugo and Jules Verne were using the sea as a metaphor for both self-awareness and freedom. Soon artists began to follow suit. Having claimed the landscape as an arena for experiment, the watery deep was now to provide fertile territory. Manet and his writer friend, Baudelaire, have often been described as the pioneers of modernity. Both possessed a somewhat Romantic sensibility combined with the dispassionate scepticism that we have now come to associate with modernity. When the Symbolist poet Mallarmé visited Manet’s studio he said of his seascapes: “Each time he begins a picture… he plunges headlong into it, and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to learn to swim, is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water.” For Manet’s work was never formulaic. He realised that he had to begin afresh with each canvas he painted. After his Civil War canvas his interest developed in a new painterly approach; how to show the fluidity and shifting quality of water, air and light. How could he depict comparatively static forms (boats) amid an ever-changing natural environment? Using wet-on-wet applications for both water and sky, the liquidity of Manet’s medium intuitively reflected the transient quality of his subject matter. There also emerged a newly confident ‘lack of finish’, along with the adaptation of a higher horizon line which stemmed from his interest in the new fashion for Japanese prints that was also to influence other artists of his generation. In the calm transparency of his of 1864, Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, the black sailed boats running before the wind have been placed like calligraphic marks against the flat surface of the turquoise sea that rises high into the picture plane, indicating the artist’s journey towards a greater compositional abstraction. It is both a perfectly balanced and an astonishingly modern work.

On his travels and family holidays Manet sketched. From his visit to Bolougne in 1868 two sketchbooks survive. The studies and small paintings of ships, of people on the beach, of the crowds of passengers on the deck of the ferry leaving Folkstone, all became the subjects of paintings that he was later to execute back in his studio, giving a sense of distance between observed reality and the finished work as in the magical painting Moonlight, Boulogne, with its pale moon illuminating the white bonnets of the huddled group of Brittany women on the quay,which he regarded as one of his most ‘honest’ works. Though whether this was painted direct from life or was reliant on the drawing of the crescent moon washed quickly across a double page in his sketchbook, it is hard to say.

Edouard Manet Croquet at Boulogne 1871-72
Croquet at Boulogne, 1871-72

One of the characteristics that makes Manet seem so modern is his dispassionate observation of social ritual, for there is something of the flâneur about his witty watchful, non-participatory study of, say, Croquet in Boulogne, with its players of the newly fashionable game imported from England and the south west breeze flattening the stream of smoke from a distant steamer as the women hold onto their hats and flags whip in the wind.

Remarkable for their freshness and immediacy Manet was, in his marine paintings, to develop his own inimitable style. Using interwoven brush-strokes and a limited palette, he was to combine painting and drawing – for it is the essentially abstracted shapes, forms and volume defined by the play of light and shadow of his ships and jetties rather than an Impressionistic capturing of the moment dependent on colour – that today still seems so incredibly modern. Within the exhibition Manet’s work is framed by works from the history of marine painting, dating back as far as the seventeenth-century Dutch masters Willem van de Velde the Younger and Lieve Verschuier and continuing with the revival of the genre in France in the first half of the nineteenth century by Eugène Delacroix, Paul Huet and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey among others. And, although at times, this approach can feel over didactic, as if every painting can only be looked at in comparison with another rather than on its own merits, the curators have also tracked the interplay of Manet’s seascapes with those of his contemporaries; Gustave Courbet, the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler, Eugène Boudin and the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind. Also included are lesser known works by Berthe Morisot, who married Manet’s brother Eugène, and placed herself firmly in the avant-garde by her participation in the Impressionist exhibitions, along with a single work by Eve Gonzalès, Manet’s only pupil, who first took lessons with him in 1869 and whose artistic career was truncated by her untimely death in 1883. But it is in the work of succeeding generations that we see the debt owed to Manet, by painters such as Monet and Renoir, who were to push the abstraction of their subject to new heights. For in their painterly seascapes, where the subject dissolves in a rendering of swirling brush marks and complex manipulation of colour which describes the physical energy of the sea, we can see how a concern with paint and the picture surface began to dominate rather than a desire for a ‘true’ depiction of the actual world. The value of this exhibition is not only that it examines a great painter in a new light but that it also reveals the connections between artists working in France at a remarkable moment of artistic discovery, so that we are able to identify the growing concerns that would come to dominate the painterly preoccupations of the 20th century.

Edouard Manet Impressions of the Sea at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 18th June to 26th September 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: The John G. Johnson Art Collection
Image 2: Potter Palmer Collection
Image 3: Collection Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image 4: Private Collection

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