"Manet and the Sea," Feb. 15-May 31, 2004, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19130
Seldom has an exhibition given more pleasure per canvas than the blockbuster "Manet and the Sea."
A few small galleries introduce the Dutch tradition of seascapes and a handful of early 19th-century French ones. From there, the visitor enters one huge airy space, so filled with marines that you can smell the ocean. A bravura still life of dead fish by Edouard Manet (1832-1883) may have boosted the scent a little.
This show of 33 out of Manet's roughly 40 marine oils along with several drawings of seascapes and a few prints is cause for celebration. A recently discovered sketchbook, available to all via a special website, offers a fresh look at Manet at his most spontaneous.
But the show's team of curators has assembled more than Manet's works. Paintings by artists who inspired Manet and were inspired by him -- a long list that includes Courbet, Whistler, Monet, Morisot and Manet's only pupil, Eva Gonzals -- are juxtaposed in an imaginative installation (that draws works from more than 60 public and private collections). It entices many a turn of the head.
The small exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, which focused on Manet's paintings of the sensational Civil War battle between two ships off the coast of France, certainly whetted my appetite.
An expanded group of paintings from 1864 leads off with the Philadelphia Museum's own rousing Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama and continues with the more serene Steamboat, Seascape with Porpoises from around the same time.
It does seem odd that Manet only got around to painting the sea in 1864 when he was already 32 years old. At age 16 he took a six-month sea voyage to Rio and back, between two failed attempts to join the French naval officers' academy in 1848. He loved the sea but was unable to base his career upon it. Two years later, he had enrolled in Thomas Couture's studio, where he studied for the next six years.
Whatever he painted as a student, as a mature artist, his first real seascape was the Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. It was as much a history painting as a seascape, one of several history paintings in contemporary dress that Manet essayed during his career. Manet made sure that the Battle appeared in Paris within weeks of the engagement.
Just before his death, Manet painted two versions of a daring escape by sea by a French political prisoner. Both The Escape of Rochefort (1880-81) and the large, unfinished oil study for it are in the show. They represent a distant and a close-up view. Taken together they are cinematic, suggesting the way that a photographer or film director might zoom in on the action.
These water-filled bookends of Manet's artistic life are easy to appreciate in the main gallery of the show. In the center are slender dark grey panels zigzagging through the space with a single Manet oil or a few drawings on each, front and back. As you loop around, you can compare a succession of Manets. The gallery's side-walls, painted in pale grey, are filled with the works of Manet's contemporaries.
Wonderful selections constitute sea-themed mini-surveys of Courbet, Whistler and especially Monet. The readily apparent give-and-take between Manet and the others and among the others, too, is tremendously invigorating.
It's easy to see the scruffy paint-handling of Courbet in Monet's The Pointe de la Havre at Low Tide (1865), although other critics have noted the influence of Boudin and Daubigny. A series of Whistler's seascapes invites the viewer to see how much he took from Manet's 1864 marines, while fashioning his own style by flattening and emptying the space, refining his touch, and limiting and graying his veils of color, as in his Trouville (Grey and Green, the Silver Sea) from 1865.
Three reminders of Renoir's few but inspired coloristic forays into marines, among them his 1879 Seascape, are pure joy. Lovely, too, is the lone painting by Eva Gonzals, an interesting painter who is concerned with more traditional female subject matter most of the time. Her untimely death, a few days after Manet's, makes her The Beach at Dieppe (ca. 1871-2) that much more welcome.
Of course, Manet and Claude Monet (1840-1926), his young rival and eventual friend, kept an eye on each other's work. Manet's influence on Monet's The Green Wave (ca.1866-7) has been pointed out quite often. It's also probably not a coincidence, as the Philadelphia Museum's Joseph J. Rishel pointed out at the press preview, that Monet's portrait of his wife The Beach at Trouville (1870) has sand in it from being painted en plein air, as does Manet's 1873 portrait of his wife and brother On the Beach -- Suzanne and Eugne Manet at Berck.
In 1874, Manet would join Renoir in a stay at Monet's villa in Argenteuil. And so the roundelays of these artists' influencing each other continued, with each perfecting his or her own style while borrowing and experimenting.
Congratulations go to the entire team of curators of "Manet and the Sea": Joseph J. Rishel, the Gisela and Dennis Alter senior curator of European painting before 1900, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Douglas W. Druick, the Searle curator of European painting and Prince Trust curator of prints and drawings, the Art Institute of Chicago, assisted by John Zarobell, assistant curator of European painting, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Gloria Groom, the David and Mary Winston Green curator of European painting, the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Art Institute has already presented a slightly different version of the show. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will see another from June 18, 2004 to Sept. 26, 2004. If you can't get to Philadelphia or Amsterdam to see "Manet and the Sea," the catalogue is a fine substitute ($65 in cloth or $42 in paper).
My one disappointment was that the show and catalogue contained not one Degas. Not even a mention of his works.
True, Degas did very few seascapes and probably developed most of them in his studio. He did, however, do a series of pastels of the sea in 1869, at a time when he was close to Manet, and some other marines at certain times in his long career. His Bains de mer: Petite fille peigne par sa bonne (ca. 1877) from Britain's National Gallery, for example, would have been a natural to pair with Manet's The Beach at Boulogne from around 1868. After all, the two quintessential Parisians were friends, and Degas did visit Manet at Boulogne in 1868.
Perhaps there was no possibility of a loan. The most important painting of the sea in early 19th France is undoubtedly Gricault's Raft of the Medusa, (1819), but knowing that that masterpiece is not leaving the Louvre any time soon, "Manet and the Sea" substitutes Delacroix's Christ on the Sea of Galilee and Shipwreck on the Coast. Still, The Raft is discussed in the catalogue, where I would have appreciated a word or two about Degas's few seascapes.
No matter. The show and catalogue are glorious.