On June 19, 1864, the United States warship Kearsarge sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in one of the most celebrated naval engagements of the American Civil War. The battle was widely reported in the illustrated press and riveted public attention on both sides of the Channel. When Kearsarge later anchored off the French resort town of Boulogne-sur-Mer it was thronged by curious visitors, one of whom was the artist Édouard Manet. Although he did not witness the historic battle, Manet made a painting of it partly as an attempt to regain the respect of his colleagues after having been ridiculed for his works in the 1864 Salon. Manet's picture of the naval engagement and his portrait of the victorious Kearsarge belong to a group of his seascapes of Boulogne whose unorthodox perspective and composition would profoundly influence the course of French painting.
This book, which accompanies an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, begins by examining Manet's early experience of the sea, including the voyage to South America he took when he was sixteen years old. The detailed narrative of the battle that follows recounts the intriguing, at times clandestine history of the two ships, the tangled prelude to their encounter, and some of the vivid personalities involved. Manet's paintings and watercolors related to the battle are then considered in depth alongside numerous prints, photographs, letters, and archival newspaper illustrations that illuminate the stirring history of the episode and in some cases dispel lingering misconceptions. Manet's other Boulogne seascapes are also discussed in terms of their complex chronology and evolution. A final chapter touches on some of the sources for the seascapes—from Old Master paintings to Japanese woodblock prints—and traces the influence of the seascapes on such artists as Gustave Courbet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet.