Introduction: Manet's Marine Paintings
An introduction to the formal qualities and influences of Manet's marine paintings.
Book: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 23.
In the summer of 1864, perhaps seeking solace after the critical drubbing he had received at the Salon of that year, Edouard Manet sojourned for a time in the northern port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he initiated a group of marine subjects and still lifes of fish. He completed the still lifes there, but he worked up the marines later, in his Paris atelier, on the basis of studies made on site. All are formally audacious, featuring high horizon lines and wall-like expanses of water against which various ships stand out emphatically. But the Art Institute’s canvas, the smallest of the group, is in some ways the most striking.
Manet rendered the water in horizontal strokes of blue and green paint; in places, the weave of the canvas bleeds through. This minimizes the effect of spatial recession, evoked only by a slight narrowing of the strokes toward the horizon and by the diagonal wake of a departing steamer. The flattened composition recalls the spatial organization seen in Japanese woodblock prints, which had recently become fashionable with the Parisian avant-garde. These images perhaps encouraged Manet to dare the schematic, almost calligraphic forms of the dark ships, which give the entire work a rhythmic, decorative character. The example of James McNeill Whistler may also lie behind this reductive approach; on friendly terms with Manet at this time, the American artist had recently begun to experiment with similarly evocative river and seascapes. The influence of contemporary photography should also be taken into account: Gustave Le Gray’s widely admired collodion-on-glass images of ocean and sky, exhibited in the 1850s, have a high-contrast quality and an eery stillness that Manet may have been emulating here.