Staring at the Sea

Staring at the Sea

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’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.

The year it was painted, Manet wrote to the painter Henri Fantin-Latour that he had no intention of getting involved in large-scale works and that he simply wanted to make some money. It is nice to know there was a market for what one might think of as anti-Salon paintings in France at the time. Perhaps this explains why most of us know so little of Manet as a painter of marines. They do not really belong to the canonical narrative of struggle between him and the juries of the official Salon, which defined him as the pivotal painter of his time. Yet according to curator Joseph Rishel, speaking for the show’s organizers, about forty of Manet’s 400 or so paintings can loosely be classed as seascapes–a figure that is all the more remarkable considering Manet’s indifference to landscape, the preferred genre of his Impressionist peers. (The Philadelphia show includes thirty-three of his seascapes, along with works on paper.) So what accounts for the fact that he painted enough seascapes to justify a major exhibition?

The reason 10 percent of Manet’s oeuvre has to do with the sea may simply be that his family spent its holidays at the shore rather than in the mountains. That they are for the most part holiday paintings filled with the expansive spirit of time off accounts, I think, for the pleasure that is generally objectified in this body of work. It is not, I may add, quite so palpable in the “8 contemporaries” whose sea paintings are shown alongside Manet’s. Their marines suggest quite different agendas from his, though they are no more concerned than he is with charting a “new course toward pure painting.” Manet’s defining agenda derives from the perspective of reinventing painting and at the same time achieving success in the Salon, which meant that his work was destined for scandal. None of this affects his paintings of the sea, which means that the show in Philadelphia brings us an artist very different from the one we learned about in Art History 101.

Manet knew a great deal about the ocean, having taken a six-month voyage to Rio de Janeiro at age 17 as a kind of cram course for the French Naval Academy, whose entrance examination he twice failed. Becoming a naval officer was an acceptable way of not following in his father’s footsteps, but since he was hopeless at passing examinations, the failures freed him to become an artist. Manet recalled an episode in which the captain ordered him to repaint some Dutch cheeses that had been discolored by seawater, providing him with a pot of red lead and some brushes. “The cheeses glistened like tomatoes,” he told his friend Antonin Proust: “The natives devoured them down to the rind.” There was an outbreak of stomach disorders in the populace, which nobody diagnosed as lead poisoning. “In business discretion is essential,” Manet said. “I didn’t say a word and…from then on the captain treated me with exceptional consideration and he for one was convinced of my talent.” Not even painting the outside of cheeses to make them look delicious can be counted an example of pure painting.

Manet’s first known seascape was painted in a rush in 1864. It depicts a battle that took place on June 19 off the coast of Cherbourg between the USS Kearsarge and the Confederate battleship CSS Alabama–a decisive naval engagement of the American Civil War, since the marauding Alabama had single-handedly disrupted commerce between France and the Union. Exhibited about a month later, it is a brilliantly imagined painting, whose dramatic subject is reinforced by the urgency of its execution. Manet was an alla prima painter: He did not build an image up through glazes but worked directly on the canvas with the same hues the finished canvas would have, so the final stages of the work would preserve the vivacity it had in the beginning. The painting was, like most of his work, done in his studio; he was not, that is, standing behind his easel on the Norman coast when the Alabama’s engines exploded, as in one of Mark Tansey’s spoofs. He read about the battle in the morning papers, and based his composition on Dutch paintings of sea battles. Manet characteristically made use of art-historical models. Déjeuner sur l’herbe notoriously exploits Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre in the Louvre, as well as a lost Judgment of Paris by Raphael, known through a famous engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi. His Olympia appropriates Titian’s Venus of Urbino. No stigma attached to these borrowings–it was standard artistic practice. The Louvre was essentially a research facility for French painters, and, if anything, the ability to recognize allusions was part of the pleasure of looking at art. Originality lay elsewhere. “Manet and the Sea” displays some early Dutch and French marines that Manet could have used as paradigms. Ludolf Backhuysen’s 1690 Dutch Vessels on a Stormy Sea may well have helped Manet visualize the action in the battle between the Kearsarge and the Alabama.

Manet underwent a singular humiliation at the hands of the Salon judges in 1863. That year, the number of rejections amounted to a scandal, and Louis Napoleon himself decreed that the now legendary Salon des Réfusés should be set up, a few weeks after the official opening of the Salon, so that people could judge the paintings for themselves. It says a great deal about Manet that he decided to show his three rejected pieces there rather than withdraw them with dignity–better the Salon des Réfusés than no Salon at all. So he exposed his spurned submissions, including his masterpiece, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, to critical and popular ridicule. My sense is that he saw his sea battle as a winner, which explains his haste to get it done and up, even if too late for the 1864 Salon–he showed it in the window of a print shop. It could well have been the success of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa that inspired the decision.

In any case, The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” was a triumph, as exciting today as the day it was finished. In the middle distance, the stern of the Alabama, black smoke billowing from its engines, is already sinking, as crew members board a lowered lifeboat. The Kearsarge, its hull partly screened by white gunsmoke, is just behind it. In the lower left, a pilot boat cuts through the surf on a rescue mission, toward seamen clinging to a spar (the figure in the stern wears the shirtsleeves and top hat of a surgeon). In the upper right, a British steamer waits for survivors in the pale morning light. How much Manet remembered from his sailing days, how much from seascapes studied in the museum, is impossible to determine. What is unmistakably his are the black shapes of the boats and curls of white paint that bring the surf to life–and the way the Alabama’s bow thrusts into the air like the nose of a proud, dying beast whose rear legs have been shattered.

The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” is every inch a tableau du Salon, and indeed it was shown in that format, which defined success as Manet conceived it, in 1872. The Beach at Boulogne breathes another spirit entirely, but it is still Manet. “What I’ve always longed to do,” he said to Méry Laurent, a friend of his and of Mallarmé, “would be to place women like you in green outdoor settings, among flowers, on beaches, where contours are eaten away in the open air, and everything melts and mingles in the bright light of day, because I can assure you I’m not just an insensitive brute. Only a fool could think I’m out to create a sensation.” Laurent had been admiring Le Linge–a surprisingly sentimental painting, now at the Barnes, of a woman in a pretty bonnet being helped by her little girl to put away laundry. It looks, untypically, like an Impressionist canvas. Today, we might say Manet was allowing his feminine side to show. But the “contours are eaten away” in the seascapes as well as the beach scenes. The magnificent Moonlight, Boulogne shows a group of shawled women, featureless in the shadows created by the same intense moonlight that silhouettes the ships docked alongside the jetty, under a starlit sky. The scandals were caused as much by Manet’s style as by his subjects. “I don’t know where Manet is going,” a critic wrote about Manet’s contributions to the Salon des Réfusés, “and if I’m not mistaken I don’t think he does either.” This is astute. The conflict, which is all too easy to simplify, was part of who he was and what makes him so fascinating an artist to those of us who have learned to live with pluralism and accept the fact that artists may pursue several directions at once.

Though it was his first seascape, Manet’s success with The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” established his reputation in that genre, so much so that when Claude Monet made his Salon debut in 1865 with some very ambitious seascapes, a good many visitors misread his signature as “Manet.” The 1865 Salon was a debacle for Manet: Olympia and Christ Mocked by Soldiers were widely ridiculed, and it chafed him that Monet’s paintings were admired while his own work was denounced. “Who is this Monet?” he asked, believing, whoever the artist was, that he was benefiting from Manet’s notoriety and his manner, using a misleading name. It was an inauspicious beginning for a relationship that came to mean a great deal to both artists, and the exhibition has a very generous display of Monet’s marines, which gives us a chance to appreciate how he pointed a direction to Manet that helped loosen him up. The relationship is almost dialectical: The Manet-Monet confusions of the 1865 Salon helped get Monet started on his career, which in turn opened possibilities for Manet that he would not have found for himself. Manet’s 1874 Venetian seascape, The Grand Canal (Blue Venice), is simply an Impressionist painting–a study of light, broken and reflected by the movement of water, with a gondola bobbing alongside blue-striped poles, as in a souvenir postcard. Two paintings, one by Monet of his wife, Camille, on the beach at Trouville, the other by Manet of his wife, Suzanne, sitting next to his brother Eugène on the beach at Berck, show how close to one another the orbits of the two painters came at a certain moment. Because of Monet, Manet became an outdoor painter for a time. Impressionism was a seductive style, but it would not finally satisfy the fierce ambitions that exposed him to the shattering defeats he suffered in Salon after Salon. It is one of the great continuing confrontations in the history of art.

Exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum are always, somehow, celebratory. The gallery is painted in Manet colors for the occasion–blue and gray. The “8 contemporaries” pursue pure painting along the side walls. At the entrance, the organizers have placed a still life with a marvelous fish lying on a tablecloth next to a polished copper casserole, along with a handful of oysters, an eel, a lemon and one of those odd red creatures one sees in baskets at fish markets in France. It stretches the concept of a seascape to open a show of marines with a painting that proclaims the pleasures of French cuisine–but the wit of placing it there brings out the wit of the painting itself, and is a tribute to Manet himself, who might have submitted it to a show of marines with the same impishness in which he replaced a goddess with a cocotte and sardonically called her Olympia. His wit thoroughly inflected his work and his life. I think it is what he meant by reacting philosophically to his ordeals.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy