Manet and the Sea: a novice’s view

I wrote this essay about eight years ago while taking a class on writing art criticism with the late William Zimmer. I wrote some more traditional art-crit writing, but I liked this short piece best.

The show “Manet and the Sea” traveled several major museums and was mounted at the Philadelphia art museum in, I think, spring of 2003. My daughter is now graduating from college with a degree in biology.

Manet and the Sea: a Novice’s View

My daughter, Alice, is almost 14. She has decided tastes: a preference for the colors red and purple, for Papillion blue cheese and Belgian chocolates (the darker the better), for anchovy-stuffed olives, for horses, for Gary Cooper and Johnny Depp. She listens to Fats Waller, Tom Lehrer and the Beatles. She has no interest in clothing fashions or in 14-year-old boys. All of this makes her not-your-average teen girl, but she still does not exactly jump at the chance to visit art museums. That’s my department.
Alice therefore exhibited typical teenaged foot-dragging when I bribed her into accompanying me to “Manet and the Sea” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (expensive chocolate desserts were promised). I attended the show with members of an art criticism class, people she referred to as “art geeks”—not a promising start to our evening together; but that’s what people her age are like and I have learned not to take the sarcasm too personally. She spurned the offer, at the gallery entrance, of a taped audio tour. “Those things are always stupid,” she pronounced. The tour was not exactly stupid; but I did decide, after awhile, that the audio part of the program was the least effective aspect of the exhibit. Alice’s intuition is often pretty canny.

My kid is a widely-read, marginally sophisticated teen who’s been to many art museums but never really shown a huge interest in paintings. On the way to Philadelphia, I asked her if she knew who Manet was; she remembered Monet and Renoir, and Delacroix’s horses, but not Manet. I told her about the scandals that revolved around “Olympia” and “The Luncheon,” and we discussed subjects for art and how those change depending on society’s values. She remembered my passion for medieval art, “all those church-y pictures with saints and halos.” Subjects of the times. But this exhibit would focus on sea paintings, I told her. Boats. Harbors. They’ll be pretty to look at, I said.

And they are. Alice was not particularly taken with the early Dutch naval battle canvases, or with Manet’s “Ship’s Deck,” but most of the other paintings appealed to her. She said of “Ship’s Deck” that “you can tell he knew a lot about boats, but this painting is kind of dull and depressing.” More to her personal tastes was one of Manet’s small, impressionistic canvases, which she returned to admire several times during the evening: “Sailing Ships at Sea” (1864). She liked the abstract but sure brushwork, quick-seeming indications of small boats “with their sails moving the right way” (she learned to sail last summer and is full of the hubris of the newly-informed) and the cheerfully-colored bands of sea and sky. This is a painting she wouldn’t mind looking at every day, she said, as opposed to Courbet’s “The Wave” (1869). She admired the Courbet for its power and deep brown hues, its action—“but it’s almost too much; I would get fidgety having it in my room.” Monet’s “The Green Wave” suited her most among the wavescape paintings. She liked the way the small boats were handling the swell.

Her taste for bright colors does seem to affect her choice of favorite paintings. She liked the vivid blue-and-white poles and bright overall feel of Manet’s “Venice—the Grand Canal” and pointed out to me the small, red sailboat and tiny white seabirds that add to the perfect charm of his “Fine Weather at Arachon” (1871). Color is what appeals to her in the Monet paintings, as well, and was what surprised her most in the Morisot harbor scenes. “Look how much white she used! These are so different from the other paintings,” she observed. “Why do you think she chose to paint those scenes?” I asked Alice. She answered that flags must be fun to paint. Color again.

But tedium sets in, even amid the loveliest gallery of paintings. Alice headed out of the show to view the chanfrons (equine face-armor) in the arms and armor gallery and to wander through the European collections. And after a long wait at a nearby restaurant, she was served a warm, chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. I opted for the crème brulée. There is food for the mind, and there’s food for the body; we shared a bit of both. On the ride home, Alice said, drowsily, “All those paintings made me want to take a vacation by the sea.” Yes, Alice—life should definitely imitate art.

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