Late 19th & early 20th Century Paintings & Decorative Arts Gallery Level 2, NGV International
Édouard Manet is generally remembered as a painter of modern urban life, whose major images reflect the social and psychological ambiguities of his time. This work, which stands at the beginning of Manet’s career and is executed with a characteristic freshness, belongs to a minor theme that he returned to many times throughout his life: imagery of the sea and ships. In 1848 Manet failed the entrance exam for the French naval officers’ school but bought his own passage as a junior helmsman on Le Havre et Guadaloupe, a three-masted ship headed for Rio de Janeiro. In most of Manet’s other paintings of this subject matter, it is the sea that occupies most of the canvas, but here Manet’s interest is in the ship itself as the vehicle for his immersion in nature. Seen from the truncated viewpoint of a helmsman, the plunging angles and stark lighting convey the painter’s enthusiasm for the sea. A sense of immediacy is created by a number of factors, including the way in which the composition is cropped at the left. The kind of pictorial structure used here, with its suggestion of the random and the seemingly spontaneous, is one that Manet carried with him from the early 1860s until the last years of his career. The virtuoso brushwork, the rapid and fluid touch in this painting, further imbues the composition with an ‘uncomposed’ appearance, while the restrained palette and tonal harmonies contribute to an overall atmosphere of stillness and calm.