"Manet and the Sea," Feb. 15-May 31, 2004 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia, PA. 19130
Besides coming in all shapes and sizes, art exhibitions vary from place to place. Last year, a small, one-artist survey comprised of Renoir's views of Algeria eventually became a major theme show. What had been a focused group of paintings at the Clark Art Institute metamorphosed into a Texas-sized celebration of the Impressionist's work at the Dallas Museum of Art. At its third and final destination at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, canvases, drawings, prints, photographs, architectural renderings and such by a variety of artists from Delacroix to Renoir were on view.
Now, a multi-faceted look at Edouard Manet and a crew of colleagues buoyantly commands center stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Like Renoir and Algeria, "Manet and the Sea" isn't just another romp through sun-dappled scenes of the French countryside and wide boulevards filled with strolling Parisians. Impressionism has a new look for the 21st century. At the PMA, don't expect to find the Waterworld version of, say, "Impressionism in Winter." A gifted team of curators has organized a beautiful, provocative survey with a novel, opening gambit: a prequel filled with battling ships and merchant vessels painted in the Netherlands during the 17th century as well as maritime pictures by Frenchmen active during the middle of the 19th century.
About the former, PMA assistant curator Lloyd Dewitt points out, "It would be reasonable to expect. . . that in devising a marine painting, [Manet, who had referred to Old Masters in Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass and other pictures he made in 1863 and 1864] would have looked to [nautical themed art] familiar to him from his student days of copying in the Louvre." Works of this nature now temporarily hang in Philadelphia near related Manets. Similarly, John Zarobell, another curator at the PMA, notes, "The story of French marine painting in the 19th century remains largely untold." And a selection of views representing the three distinct styles that comprise this genre is also on display.
Of the 400-odd paintings Manet executed during his truncated career -- he died in 1883 at the age of 51 -- about 40 were marine pictures. The earliest, The Battle of the 'Kearsarge' and the C.S.S. 'Alabama,' executed during the summer of 1864, resembles a still from Master and Commander, the Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie. In its day, it served much the same function. After French newspapers publicized an imminent battle to be waged between two American ships -- one belonging to the Union states and the other to the Confederacy -- in the waters near Cherbourg, this war picture was made for display in a shop window. While it wasn't exactly a concert in the Tuileries or the bar at the Folies-Bergere, this Civil War engagement was a spectacle you could attend with the purchase of a train ticket to the coast of Normandy.
The same year that Edgar Degas was making studies for his awkward, unresolved Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Manet almost single-handedly transformed history painting by depicting a contemporary event involving bobbing boats, turbulent waters, the flags of several nations, aquamarine water, translucent skies and billowing smoke mingling with feathery clouds. And he executed a subject ripped from the headlines on a canvas suitable for the homes of collectors, not just the walls of an art museum.
Manet's last sea pictures, the two versions of The Escape of Rochefort painted in 1880-81, are equally radical. When he put Henri Rochefort and five companions in a boat off the shores of a penal colony in New Caldonia, he had the ability to tell a story worthy of Alexandre Dumas with a field of animated color, a high horizon line and brushstrokes prefiguring Abstract Expressionism. Does Rochefort, a journalist turned politician, successfully flee his imprisonment? Having bested Napoleon III's jailers, are our hero and his colleagues overcome by nature's uncharted waters?
Manet knew how to keep viewers on their toes. In the days before CNN, he provided his contemporaries with a quasi-imaginative picturing of what might have happened. As for modern beholders, these suspenseful scenes probably seem closer to the tale of the Count of Monte Cristo than actual events.
Between his reconstructions of a Civil War battle and an episode in the biography of a heroic figure, Manet painted the harbor at Boulogne, the Bay of Arcachon, Berck's beach and even views of Holland and Venice. Whether it's moonlight, the deck of a ship, a game of croquet, a boat being tarred or two people seated by a window, your eyes will feast on an astonishing range of blues and greens. No less a critic than Clement Greenberg almost 40 years ago observed, "Manet's still-lifes and seascapes show a greater consistency of approach, as well as a steadier level of quality, than anything else in the total body of his works in oil."
As you move through the PMA's "open air" installation, you may feel as if you are strolling along a boardwalk or on the deck of a luxury liner, with only the smell of salt water and the abrasive sounds of seagulls missing. The Manets are displayed down the centers of two "passageways." Paintings hang on the front panels; works on paper appear on their backs. The sidewalls that ring the exhibition hall are filled with groups of paintings by the other artists in the show, including Courbet, Whistler, Boudin, Monet, Renoir and Berthe Morisot, Manet's sister-in-law. Wherever you look, you're surrounded by a sea of blues.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Origins of Impressionism" show in 1994, works by Courbet and Whistler were paired together. After all, when these two artists went to the beach together in 1865, they shared an esthetic. Now the results of their mutual adventure are again on view. But this round, it's also possible to see what set them apart. Several views of crashing waves by Courbet that belong to museums in Lyon and Edinburgh as well as the PMA should not be missed. Gustave Courbet the Realist executed a Romantic masterpiece or two.
This show celebrates individuals rather than a cohesive movement. Boudin, for one, has never looked stronger. His small-sized oils aren't particularly assertive; and his top-hatted men and parasol-shielded women who gather on chairs near sandy shorelines often seem a tad formal. But in this glorious exhibition, they represent yet another option for experiencing life out-of-doors. Morisot's lively scenes also garner more attention than they do in the typical review of Impressionism.
Other standouts include Renoir's depictions of waves and a sunset at sea from 1879 and 1882, respectively. Only a master could move blues and yellows across the surface of his canvases such as these. You may never again associate him with Michelin-like nudes. What about Claude Monet? A selection of his work spans seventeen years, beginning with an 1864 view of the lighthouse at Honfleur. You'll find swift sailboats, elegant women, lots of weather effects. Three paintings of roiling waves from 1881 practically steal the show. They're reminiscent of van Gogh's Wheatfields Avant la Lettre. Paired with Monet's well-known Garden at Saint-Adresse is a view of the beach in this town near Le Havre. These two unlike scenes are yet another indication of how the curatorial team of this splendid show rethought Impressionist stereotypes.
You can travel to Trouville, Etretat or Berck this summer to swim and sun bathe at the actual sites. Or you can spend a winter's day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art touring the show. As destination points, the beaches where Manet and Company painted are not all that different from what they were like 175 years ago. But Impressionism 2004 is not the same old, same old. Today "Manet and the Sea" sails under a new flag.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.