Old Manet and Sea: The First Modernist

The French artist Édouard Manet (1832-83) is often said to have been the first modernist painter-the father, as it were, of Impressionism and the great succession of avant-garde movements that followed in its wake. In fact, there’s just enough truth in the claim to render it plausible, even at this distance in time. But it was never the whole truth about Manet-who could scarcely touch a brush to a canvas without recalling the Old Masters-and it has frequently led to a misunderstanding of the artist’s relation to the tradition whose lofty standards the 19th-century reactionaries in the French Academy accused him of violating.

By their lights-not always the brightest-the champions of the academy undoubtedly had a point: Though Manet clearly made a close and sympathetic study of certain Italian and Spanish masters, it was a study that resulted in a determination to modernize his medium and thus bring it into close alignment with contemporary experience. The benighted exponents of “tradition” could not forgive him for this audacity, which made him a hero to the newly emergent avant-garde.

Two provocative figure paintings of 1863- Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe , based on Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre , and Olympia , based on Titian’s Venus of Urbino -provoked famous scandals. And it is mainly for his figure compositions-of which, in my view, the greatest is the Bar at the Folies-Bergère (circa 1882)-that Manet is widely admired today.

But in the exhibition called Manet and the Sea , currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, the focus is on a very different aspect of the artist’s achievement. For most of us, Manet’s interest in marine painting has remained a more or less marginal subject, but it turns out to have been a major one for the artist himself. Although we were recently given a glimpse of Manet’s initial foray into marine pictorial subjects (a battle scene at sea in a show called Manet and the American Civil War at the Metropolitan Museum), the exhibition in Chicago is a far more ambitious production, with nearly 100 marine works, including paintings, watercolors and drawings by Manet and his contemporaries-among them Delacroix, Courbet, Whistler, Monet, Renoir, Jongkind, Boudin and Morisot.

While it would be going too far to suggest that with Manet and the Sea , the artist emerges as a radically changed painter, energetic engagement with marine subjects does seem to have unleashed an impulse in Manet that we do not find in his earlier work-an impulse to confront the untamed forces of nature. In this respect, too, Manet was once again in the avant-garde, for as John Zarobell reminds us in his catalog essay for Manet and the Sea : “There was, in fact, something like an explosion of marine painting in the 1860′s among artists not connected with the Academy or bound by official commissions …. As the behemoths of official marine painting declined in artistic importance, the field was left open to experimental artists who did not much care about their relationship to the artistic establishment in Paris and who sought, in the sea, a means of furthering their inquiries into the relationship between the self and the natural world.”

Manet was in one respect better qualified to deal with the subject than many of his contemporaries: At the age of 16, he had gone to sea as a sailor, spending three months on a ship bound for Brazil, in order to qualify for a career as a naval officer. But he wasn’t much good at passing the requisite exams for such a career, and it’s our good fortune that he fell back on pursuing an artistic career as an alternative.

As a consequence of his experience as a sailor, Manet was on more intimate terms with the sea and its manifold mysteries than most of the other painters of the time-and far less daunted by it. Courbet, especially in his wave paintings, often responded to the challenge of sea painting as exercise in physical combat, in which he was determined to subdue an unruly antagonist; Renoir remained utterly undaunted, painting his ocean waves with the same brushy delicacy he brought to the depiction of bourgeois ladies’ frilly dresses; and Monet appears to have been steadfastly faithful to his direct observation of the sea and its seaside visitors. But Manet seems to have made no distinction between observation and invention in rendering a subject he knew by heart, so to speak.

What lends still another layer of interest to Manet and the Sea are the many glimpses it gives us of those visitors to the seaside who, either as swimmers or leisurely observers, inaugurated a pastime so familiar to us today. Between paintings like Manet’s On the Beach at Boulogne (1868) or the Departure of the Folkestone Boat (circa 1868-72) and the steady production in our time of similar seaside scenes at Provincetown, the Hamptons and Cape Ann, there’s an obvious connection-despite vast differences in aesthetic quality. The sea may be eternal, but the social uses that are made of it bear the stamp of period sensibilities, and that’s another part of our history that’s illuminated in this dazzling exhibition.

Manet and the Sea remains on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 19, 2004, and then travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Feb. 15 to May 31, 2004) and to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (June 18 to Sept. 26, 2004).