It’s my lot to be abused and I take it philosophically.
–Édouard Manet to Antonin Proust, May 1880
Toward the end of January, I received an invitation to a press opening for “Manet and the Sea,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It reproduced a painting of people on a beach, taking the sea air. The scene was as fresh as the air itself, bringing a virtual whiff of saltwater, a feeling of sunshine and physical happiness, and of the freedom and adventure the mere thought of the ocean awakens. In part because of the harsh cold we had all been enduring, in part because of the surge of pleasure French painting of that era always induces, I simply forgave the phrase in the press release (“The artist and 8 contemporaries chart a new course toward pure painting”) and resolved to fuir là-bas–“flee down there,” to cite Mallarmé’s great poem “Sea Breeze”–even if là-bas was Philadelphia in February rather than Boulogne-sur-Mer in August.
The chief problem of the press description is that it invites us to view the show as pointing the way to pure painting, whatever that is, instead of situating the works in the art world of their time. Manet’s 1868 Beach at Boulogne, with the lightness, the clarity, the sense of life at its best, conveyed by the loosely sketched disjunction of holidaymakers surrendering to simple summer enjoyments more than a century ago–promenading under parasols, peering at seashells, wading, gazing at the passing boats, riding a docile donkey, playing in the sand–is a wonderful work in itself. It is not a finished tableau but preserves the quality of a sketch, however intensely Manet may have worked on it; it is clear, just from looking at it, that he transcribed onto the canvas pictorial notations from his sketchbooks, drawn on the spot. It resembles a horizontal scroll, with the kind of spontaneously drawn figures the Japanese master Hokusai distributed across a sheet for one of his booklets. The figures have little to do with one another, without that implying, as a wall text suggests, a proposition regarding the loneliness of modern life. Who really cares what in the twentieth century it heralds? Who really cares about pure paintingwhen one stands in front of it?
Writing of one of Manet’s masterpieces, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a hostile critic once observed that his paintings had the quality of rebuses. A rebus is a kind of puzzle in which pictures are juxtaposed that have nothing obvious to do with one another. One solves a rebus by pronouncing the names of the objects the pictures show, producing a coherent message. Freud thought the images in a dream have the apparent dislogic of a rebus, and there is a sense in which The Beach at Boulogne has the quality of a dream, with the difference that there is no organizing interpretation to seek. The beach and the sea beyond it have an essential emptiness, with people dotted here and there on the one and boats dashed here and there on the other. It is not a Salon picture, like most of the paintings most of us know by Manet. It feels as if it were made for pleasure and to give pleasure, rather than for the heroic purpose of creating Modernism.