How Manet Saw the Sea: The Burgeoning French Seaside Resort Culture Produced an Aesthetic Exploration by the Artist and His Contemporaries That Helped Usher in the Vanguard Painting of the Impressionist Movement

By Druick, Douglas; Groom, Gloria | USA TODAY, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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How Manet Saw the Sea: The Burgeoning French Seaside Resort Culture Produced an Aesthetic Exploration by the Artist and His Contemporaries That Helped Usher in the Vanguard Painting of the Impressionist Movement


Druick, Douglas, Groom, Gloria, USA TODAY


The MARINE PAINTINGS of Edouard Manet comprise a little-studied but highly significant aspect of career of the artist who is sometimes referred to as the father of Impressionism. Manet's seascapes--ranging from 1864 to shortly before his death in 1883--are evidence of complex interactions that link the artist to his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, including Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, James McNeill Whistler, Clande Monet, and Berthe Morisot, among others.

Born in 1832 in Paris, Manet experimented relentlessly, pushing the boundaries of his craft and building on past achievements of himself and others while responding to the new currents in vanguard painting. In taking the sea as a subject, however, Manet also could look to his personal experience. Before embarking on a career in painting, he attempted to pursue one in the navy. To this end, at the age of 16, he traveled aboard a merchant vessel on a three-month voyage to Brazil--a short but significant trip that may have inspired his later seascapes. As he wrote his mother at the time, "It is impossible to form an idea of the sea if you haven't seen it wild as we did."

In his 20s, Manet garnered recognition at the state-sponsored Salon exhibition in Paris and established himself as the painter to watch with pictures that translated old master painting into a modern idiom. In subject, light, and handling, "Still Life with Fish" (1864) recalls the tradition of the great French and Spanish masters of the genre. The work also displays Manet's bravura brushwork, economy of means, and ability to convey a sense of direct experience. By the time he executed this picture, however, official response attuned to the radical nature of his work had become negative, and the Salon juries routinely rejected his creations. It was then that Manet began depicting the sea. Embarking on tiffs new subject, he expanded his earlier ambitions to rival the great figure painters of the past, putting into service his extraordinary ability to suggest a direct sensation of reality. The genre of marine painting provides an ideal lens through which the modern viewer can witness this dynamic. This aspect of his work spoke to the emerging generation of vanguard artists, who would become known as the Impressionists.

Manet had to contend with the traditions established by the 17th-century Dutch artists, who were familiar to him from his many visits to the Musee du Louvre in Paris. Befitting Holland's superior naval power, its artists pictured battles celebrating the young Republic, with special attention given to the details of the vessels and historic events. Willem van de Velde the Younger, arguably the most important marine painter of his time, went further, treating the sea as a stage for the action portrayed and a vehicle for his tour-de-force renderings of luminous skies and water reflections. Van de Velde's grand and monumental style established a template for sea painting in France during Manet's youth.

Following the Dutch tradition, Manet's rust marine effort is a historical painting depicting a naval hattie. The subject is a then current event: a celebrated episode in the American Civil War that took place off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in the English Channel, on June 19, 1864. There, within view of the beach, the seemingly unstoppable, wooden Confederate commerce raider, the Alabama, was sunk by the ironclad Union warship Kearsarge. The battle aroused great interest internationally, and, as a result, illustrations of the combat appeared in countless newspapers and magazines. Manet, in Paris, did not personally witness the event but almost immediately undertook an imaginative reconstruction drawn from the published accounts. Within a month of the battle, Manet's depiction of the conflict. "The Battle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama." was on view in the window of a Parisian gallery owned by the important print publisher Alfred Cadart.

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