Manet and the Sea
October 20, 2003–January 19, 2004


    The Vogue for Sea Paintings in the Second Half of the 19th Century

    In 1864 the famous wooden Confederate commerce raider the Alabama was sunk by the ironclad Union warship Kearsarge off the coast of France in the English Channel. Although Manet, in Paris at the time, did not witness this celebrated episode in the American Civil War, he was inspired to paint an imaginary view of the event, reconstructing it from the well-publicized accounts he had seen in the press. His depiction of the conflict, The Battle of the U.S.S. "Kearsarge" and the C.S.S. "Alabama," was first exhibited in July 1864 in the windows of the gallery of Alfred Cadart, an important French print publisher whose gallery was frequented by many of the artists included in the exhibition. Summering on the Normandy coast that year, Manet began to produce other marine paintings, such as Steamboat Leaving Boulogne. Starkly modern, they demonstrate the artist’s ability to suggest the fluidity and changing quality of water, air, and light with a remarkably concise yet painterly shorthand.

    By the 1860s a number of artists were also looking to images of the sea as a field for experimentation. Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819–1891) and Eugène Boudin (1824–1898) focused on the ships in the harbor and the panorama of social life on the beaches of the French resorts at Trouville and Deauville along the Normandy coast. For all of their apparent indebtedness to Dutch 17th-century precedents (set by Willem van de Velde the Younger and Lieve Verschuier), however, they introduced new ways to convey the effects of air and light that would influence the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet (1840–926).

    The emergent vanguard had to contend with immediate precedents. In the 1850s, the great Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) had subverted the tradition of marine painting (glassy surfaces, nautical detail, low horizon line) in broadly brushed canvases with high horizons that negate distance and make the sea appear to fill the canvas. Although derived from firsthand study, Delacroix’s seascapes are essentially romantic—the sea is a potent symbol of liberation and a universal force.

    By contrast, the leader of the Realist school, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), stressed the physical density of the sea. Born in the landlocked, mountainous Jura region of southeastern France, Courbet was 40 years old when he seriously turned his attention to marine painting. In 1865 at the seaside town of Trouville, where he visited Monet and Jongkind, Courbet painted the shore, boats, and ocean, working alongside the young American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Unlike Courbet’s thickly painted, almost sculptural seascapes, such as Fishing Boat, which speak to his interest in narrative content and structural form, Whistler’s marines were created with thin layers of oil paint to suggest barren expanses that evoke the transient quality of the sea itself. Whistler’s Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso, for example, captures the evanescent sunset flooding a peaceful Chilean harbor, making no reference to the 1866 bombardment of the city by Spanish warships during a colonial dispute, which Whistler witnessed. In many ways, Whistler’s seascapes reflect the impact of the 1864 marine paintings of his friend Manet. Both share elements derived from the then-popular Japanese prints—high horizon line, flat planes of color, and a near calligraphic simplification of ships and boats.

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    Sea Painting and Modern Life

    The French city of Boulogne, which Manet visited with his family in 1864 and 1868, as well as the towns of Trouville and Deauville, where Boudin and Jongkind first painted, were part of a burgeoning resort culture developed during the Second Empire (the reign of Napoleon III in France from 1852 to 1870). New train lines linking Paris and the coast made the seaside accessible to both the middle and wealthy classes. This created an alternative society with rituals and expectations that were understandably less formal than those in the capital. Manet’s On the Beach at Boulogne, a view of female bathers on the sand and in the water, captures the pleasures of summer recreation on the beach available to both Parisians and local residents. It was on the Normandy coast that Monet painted a number of canvases in the early 1860s with a palette and composition indebted to Jongkind and Boudin. It is generally agreed, however, that Monet’s transition to more brilliant color and a raised horizon line in subsequent paintings, such as Garden at Sainte-Adresse, was partially due to his encounter with Manet’s Kearsarge painting.

    Manet, in turn, would look to Monet. Though initially irritated that Monet’s seascapes exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1865 were mistakenly identified as his own, Manet soon became an admirer of the younger artist, referring to him as the "Raphael of water." Manet began to paint outdoors after 1871 and incorporated fragmented brushwork into his technique. These characteristics point to his ongoing dialogue with Monet. Both artists were interested in the perpetual movement of the sea as well as in the piers, jetties, docks, and hotels of the coast and its seasonal residents.

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    Sea Painting and Impressionism

    Another artist in dialogue with Manet was Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), who had been his friend and model since 1868 and married his brother Eugène in 1874. This coincided with Morisot’s new commitment to marine painting. In compositions executed at the Isle of Wight in the English Channel and at Nice on the Mediterranean Sea, Morisot depicted boats—under construction or docked in harbors—and used remarkably loose, abbreviated brush strokes to render both aqueous surfaces and human activity. When Manet complimented Morisot’s Habor at Lorient, painted on the Brittany coast, she gave it to him. Like Monet’s seascapes and Manet’s shimmering views of the Grand Canal in Venice, Morisot’s work exploits the reflective possibilities inherent in the translation of water and light into paint. In her seascapes, the quintessential tenets of the "new painting"—which by 1875 was known as Impressionism—are manifest: rendering in paint the transient atmospheric effects of light and water in seemingly casual compositions that suggest the need to work quickly when painting on the spot.

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    The Sea and Painterly Experimentation

    One of the criticisms of Impressionism was its perceived inability to give substantial form—a requisite degree of "finish"—to the subject. Dissolving forms into the background was anathema to both academically trained artists and their public. Although landscapes afforded the opportunity to employ the open brushwork associated with vanguard painting, seascapes—the fluidity of water—seemed to invite more gestural freedom and painterly experimentation. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) responded in the late 1870s, while visiting his patron’s seaside château near Dieppe, with pictures that focus exclusively on the movement of the sea and sky. These paintings, which include the Art Institute’s 1879 Seascape, anticipate Monet’s later canvases (such as A Stormy Sea) that similarly provide no clues of a specific place or cultural context. Although Courbet had earlier painted vivid but frozen "portraits" of foaming waves, the younger generation beginning with Manet considered the constantly moving and limitless ocean waves as pretexts (rather than motifs) for pure painting—painting not driven by the subject, but capturing the essence of the atmosphere. In their concerns for decoratively abstract forms, these artists anticipated 20th-century modernism.

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    Manet’s Last Seascapes: Modernism and Romanticism

    Manet’s first and last seascapes are depictions of historical events fueled by the artist’s imagination: the naval battle that took place in the English Channel in June 1864, which he did not witness (The Battle of the U.S.S. "Kearsarge" and the C.S.S. "Alabama), and the escape in March 1874 of the notorious journalist Henri Rochefort from the French prison colony on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, which Manet painted in his Paris studio during 1880 and 1881. In his two treatments of The Escape of Rochefort, one now in the Zurich Kunsthaus and the other in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the boat drifts without masts and sails as if rocked by the tides of fate; the figure of Rochefort looks out with wonderment and foreboding. He is arguably a stand-in for the artist, who was facing the illness that would lead to his death two years later. Manet’s canvases are infused with a sense of isolation that is essentially romantic but rendered in a thoroughly modern style. The light, bright palette is deployed in a spectacularly gestural execution that puts Impressionist technique in the service of Manet’s inimitable, signature style.

    Manet’s seascapes chart an artistic journey that lasted almost two decades. This was a time of relentless experimentation, during which he continually pushed the boundaries of his own craft and built on the past achievements of himself and others while responding to the new currents in vanguard art. Marine painting provides an ideal lens for the modern viewer to witness this dynamic. The goal of this exhibition is not to map specific influences but rather to suggest the creative reverberations—the artistic give and take—that make this period so exciting.

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    Above: Edouard Manet. Venice—The Grand Canal (Blue Venice), 1874. Oil on canvas. Collections of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, 1972–69.15

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