The Great Man and the Sea

Edouard Manet is famed for his studies of Parisian life. What's less well-known is his obsession with the sea. Sue Hubbard was granted a sneak preview of the first ever exhibition of his maritime paintings
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When he was only 16, the painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) sailed on a round trip from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro. His father, a judge, had expected him to enter the law, but Edouard was an uninterested and inadequate student. Instead, he wanted to become a sailor and in July 1848 he took and failed the entrance exam to the French naval officers' school. To re-sit the examination, he had to serve on a French navy or merchant ship whose course crossed the equator. It was thus that the young Manet set sail on a small three-mast ship.

When he was only 16, the painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) sailed on a round trip from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro. His father, a judge, had expected him to enter the law, but Edouard was an uninterested and inadequate student. Instead, he wanted to become a sailor and in July 1848 he took and failed the entrance exam to the French naval officers' school. To re-sit the examination, he had to serve on a French navy or merchant ship whose course crossed the equator. It was thus that the young Manet set sail on a small three-mast ship.

On board, his naval studies did not fare much better but, as he wrote to his mother in 1849, he "developed a reputation during the crossing. All the ship's officers and all the instructors asked me to make caricatures of them. Even the captain asked for one, as his Christmas present."

The journey also marked the start of a relationship with the sea that would shape Manet's oeuvre for decades, as can be seen in the first ever exhibition of Manet's seascapes, which has just arrived from America at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Just as modern as his works depicting Parisian life, these often seemingly casual paintings illustrate the formal innovations he made which helped give birth to Impressionism, and highlight how the subject of the sea was given new meanings by Manet and his fellow artists. Years later, as a mature painter, he was to write: "I learnt a lot on my trip to Brazil. I spent countless nights watching the play of light and shadow in the ship's wake."

The lure of the deep has, since ancient times, exercised a strong hold over the imagination. Images of seafaring appear on Egyptian tomb paintings, Minoan frescoes and Greek ceramics. From Jason and the Argonauts to Moby Dick, the sea has stood as a potent symbol of human struggle, embodying the desire for adventure, mastery and conquest. An awesome natural force, the sea was perceived as a feminine entity from which all life evolved. An arena for both discovery and trade, it has also loomed large in the unconscious as a place of mystery and terror, representing all that was powerful, fathomless and unknowable. Medieval maps illustrated a world surrounded by ocean where mythical monsters lurked, while the marine genre of painting that emerged in Europe during the Renaissance expressed an essentially Christian view-point, depicting the world f from on high and integrating human activity into God's cosmos.

Yet the sea remained a relatively unexplored motif in European art before the 17th and 18th centuries, appearing as little more than a backdrop for battle scenes. In England, Nelson's naval victories inspired a generation of painters, while for the Dutch, seascapes expressed national pride in prosperity acquired through trade. But for France - Catholic, aristocratic and without an extensive maritime trade - the sea remained a comparatively undeveloped theme. Paintings that were produced were historic, patriotic accounts of naval battles, though in Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, 1819, the plight of doomed sailors clinging to a fragile craft adrift on a murderous sea appealed to a burgeoning Romantic sensibility. With this growth of Romanticism, the sea began to take on ever more complex meanings. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau it was "exotic" and "untamed", while for others it came to represent the mystical and stood as a symbol of personal freedom. For Manet and his contemporaries it provided a new aesthetic challenge, for unlike landscape, the sea was in constant flux; an ever-changing phenomenon that needed its own descriptive language.

By the mid-1860s certain critics felt that the tradition of official marine painting was already in decline, just as the young Edouard Manet was about to begin his investigations into the form, though this had as much to do with social changes as aesthetic ones. For with the development of the railways, middle-class Parisians, who may never before have seen the sea, were able to leave behind the soot-choked city and, within a few hours, be strolling along new promenades, indulging in the previously English vogue of sea-bathing in resorts that were springing up along the Channel coast.

The colonisation of villages such as Etretat and Honfleur by painters including Richard Parkes Bonington (an Englishman) and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey, who had gone there as early as the 1820s to produce illustrated books and travel guides, gave rise to a new genre of painting, the Picturesque. It depicted the workaday life of fishing villages and encouraged tourists to seek out these previously remote locations. All along the Normandy coast the destructive force of the sea was being tamed by architecture; by lighthouses and jetties and the transposed trappings of urban life - hotels, f casinos and beach clubs. The tight social rituals and cultural strictures of city life were loosened, along with women's stays, as bathing gear was adopted. The beach and the seashore were becoming democratic spaces.

There was something of an explosion of marine painting in the 1860s, though not by artists necessarily connected with the Academy or bound by official commissions. For these "unofficial" artists, working en plein air, colour and tone were used to express the sentiment of the place. Manet's embrace of sea painting in the summer of 1864 began against this changing social background and coincided with the historic US Civil War naval battle that had taken place off the coast of France near Cherbourg. His imaginative re-enaction of the encounter between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama was, within a few weeks of its execution, on view to the Parisian public in Alfred Cadart's fashionable gallery. In this powerful painting, Manet conjures all the immediacy of the battle.

By this time, writers such as Jules Michelet, Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and Jules Verne were using the sea as a metaphor for self-awareness and freedom. Soon artists began to follow suit. Having claimed the landscape as an arena for experiment, the watery deep was now fertile territory. Manet and his friend Baudelaire are often described as the pioneers of Modernity. Both possessed a somewhat Romantic sensibility combined with the dispassionate scepticism that we now associate with Modernity. When the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé visited Manet's studio he said of the seascapes: "Each time he begins a picture ... he plunges headlong into it, and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to learn to swim is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water." For Manet's work was never f formulaic. He realised that he had to begin afresh with each canvas he painted.

After his Civil War canvas, his interest developed in a new painterly approach; how to show the fluidity and shifting quality of water, air and light. How could he depict comparatively static forms (boats) amid an ever-changing natural environment? Applying wet paint on wet paint for both water and sky, Manet used the liquidity of his medium to intuitively reflect the transient quality of his subject. There also emerged a confident lack of finish, along with the adaptation of a higher horizon line which stemmed from his interest in the new fashion for Japanese prints. In the calm transparency of his 1864 Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, the black sail boats are placed like calligraphic marks against the flat surface of the turquoise sea that rises high into the picture plane, indicating the artist's journey towards a greater compositional abstraction. It is a perfectly balanced and astonishingly modern work.

On his travels and family holidays, Manet sketched. Two sketchbooks survive from his visit to Boulogne in 1868. The studies and small paintings of ships, people on the beach and crowds on the deck of the ferry all became the subjects of paintings he executed back in his studio, giving a sense of distance between observed reality and the finished work, as in the magical painting Moonlight, Boulogne, with its pale moon illuminating the white bonnets of the huddled group of Brittany women on the quay. It is a work he regarded as one of his most "honest", though whether it was painted direct from life or relied on the drawing of the crescent moon washed quickly across a double page in his sketchbook, it is hard to say.

A characteristic that makes Manet seem so modern is his dispassionate observation of social ritual. There is something of the flâneur about his witty, watchful studies - say, Croquet in Boulogne, with its players of the newly fashionable game imported from England, and the breeze flattening the stream of smoke from a distant steamer as the women hold on to their hats, and flags whip in the wind.

Remarkable for their freshness and immediacy, Manet's marine paintings show a development in his style. Using interwoven brushstrokes and a limited palette, he was to combine painting and drawing. Thus, it is the abstraction of shapes, forms and volume defined by the play of light and shadow of ships and jetties, rather than an Impressionistic capturing of the moment, dependent on colour, that today still seems so incredibly modern.

Within the exhibition, 30 of Manet's works are framed by those from the history of marine painting, dating back as far as the 17th-century Dutch masters Willem van de Velde the Younger and Lieve Verschuier, and continuing with the revival of the genre in France in the first half of the 19th century by Eugène Delacroix, Paul Huet and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey, among others. At times this approach can feel over-didactic, as if every painting can only be looked at in comparison with another, but the curators have also tracked the interplay of Manet's seascapes with those of his contemporaries, Gustave Courbet, James McNeill Whistler, Eugène Boudin and the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind.

But it is in the work of succeeding generations that we see the debt owed to Manet, by painters such as Monet and Renoir, who were to push the abstraction of their subject to new heights. For in their painterly seascapes, where the subject dissolves in a rendering of swirling brush marks and complex manipulation of colour which describes the physical energy of the sea, we can see how a concern with paint and surface began to dominate over any desire for a "true" depiction. The value of this exhibition is not only that it examines a great painter in a new light but that it reveals the connections between artists working in France at a remarkable moment of artistic discovery, so that we are able to identify the growing concerns that would come to dominate the painterly preoccupations of the 20th century. E

Edouard Manet: Impressions of the Sea is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until 26 September. For further information, call 00 31 2 0570 5200 or visit