In June 1864, all France was enthralled by the prospect of a naval skirmish between a Yankee and a Confederate warship off the Normandy coast.
Edouard Manet may or may not have been part of the crowd of spectators that climbed into boats or rushed to cliffs above Cherbourg on the afternoon of June 19, and it is not clear if anyone could see from the land, but, when the guns fell silent, the whole world learned that the ironclad steamship USS Kearsarge had sunk the CSS Alabama in a deadly confrontation.
There hadn’t been a naval engagement in European waters for more
than half a century and the American battle fought off the coast of France was big news. Manet had been familiar with ships and the sea from his teenage years, when he had sailed to Brazil, and looking for quick recognition, he set about creating an “eyewitness” description of an event everyone was talking about. He worked swiftly in his Paris studio from written descriptions, sketches, possibly from photographs, and painted a large square canvas. Less than a month after the battle, the picture was on public display in the window of Alfred Cadart’s art gallery near the Bibliothèque Impériale in Paris.
Viewers on the street in Paris surely sensed what we sense today, that we are standing on the cliffs above Cherbourg looking out over a disturbed sea. Manet’s syncopated strokes of black and aquamarine throw us off balance. Almost seasick from the vertiginous viewpoint and confused by the clouds of cannon smoke, we ask: “Which ship is the Kearsarge? Which the Alabama?”
The little sailboat in the foreground, flying the French tricolor, ploughs through the waves and races to rescue survivors. We go on with our lives, but the smack of a salt breeze, the fresh cold wind in our face, the exhilaration of a boat under full sail, the terror of the deep, travels with us as we proceed on our way.