Manet painted this delicate, ethereal view of boats on a fog-shrouded beach in March 1871, as he began to recover from the desperate privations of the Prussian siege of Paris. Unlike Monet and Pissarro, who had taken refuge in London when war broke out the previous year, Manet sent his family to safety in southwestern France and joined the National Guard to defend the capital as Prussian troops closed in. His numerous letters, dispatched by balloon across enemy lines, chronicle the increasingly dire shortages. In September, as the siege got underway, his biggest complaint was a lack of café au lait. Two months later, he wrote to Eva Gonzalès, “Horse meat is regarded as a delicacy, donkey is wildly expensive, there are dog, cat, and rat butcher shops” (quoted in Manet, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983, p. 322). By the end of 1870, there was nothing to eat but brown bread. Faced with the prospect of rampant starvation, the French government capitulated in late January, signing a humiliating treaty that unified the German states under King Wilhelm I of Prussia and gave the coveted territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the victors.
On 12 February, Manet left Paris to join his mother Eugénie, his wife Suzanne, and his stepson Léon at Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the Pyrenees, some five hundred miles from Paris, where they had weathered the war. Together, the family journeyed back to the capital in stages, tending to Manet along the way. They spent a month at Arcachon, two weeks at Bordeaux, a month at Le Pouliguen, and finally a week at Tours. They arrived back in the capital in early June, immediately after the so-called semaine sanglante—an unimaginably violent week of fratricide and destruction during which the French army suppressed the Commune, a revolutionary government that had seized power in the wake of the Armistice.
In a letter to Gonzalès from late February, Suzanne reported that Manet was much changed after the suffering of the siege, but that he had begun to paint again, much to his delight. During his restorative month at Arcachon, a fishing village and modest resort about thirty miles southwest of Bordeaux, he completed no fewer than six oils—five spare and subtly luminous views of the beach and harbor, including La plage à marée basse, and an intimate interior depicting Suzanne and Léon seated before an open window with a view onto the water (Rouart and Wildenstein, nos. 165-170). Although the latter was worked up from an elaborate preparatory drawing, the seascapes are true plein air paintings, among Manet’s first, reflecting his immediate response to particular visual stimuli. The present canvas may have been painted from the terrace of the small chalet that Manet and his family rented for the month of March at the western end of town, or it may depict the fisherman’s district on the more sheltered, eastern edge of Arcachon, a short walk from the artist’s lodging.
Although Manet’s letters from Arcachon indicate that the anxious political situation in Paris was never far from his mind, the paintings that he made on the beach there are exquisitely hushed and tranquil—a respite from the ordeals of the année terrible, as Victor Hugo memorably called it. In the foreground of the present view are three pinasses, a distinctive local flat-bottomed vessel; two are at rest and vacant, while a pair of fishermen is still busy with the third at the water’s edge. Beyond the pinasses are several sailboats, some of which seem to be afloat and others beached at low tide, tilting at steep angles on the sand. The waters of the bay are calm, sheltered from Atlantic storms by Cap Ferret, here obscured by the ghostly fog. The keenly observed boats, rapidly rendered in shades of gray and black, stand out against the pale, silvery ground, which encompasses both sea and sky.
“Manet has captured the essence of the scene with an astonishing directness and economy of means,” Juliet Wilson-Bareau has written. “Sand, sea, and sky merge in the hazy light of this shallow, almost inland sea. The picture is structured only by the rhythms of hulls, masts, and rigging in a subtle patterning of reflected light and misty distance” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2003, pp. 78 and 80).
This quiet tableau of mariners at work may have evoked for Manet memories of the three months that he spent at age sixteen aboard a merchant marine vessel bound for Brazil, preparing for the entrance exam to the French naval officers’ school. He seems to have passed much of his time during the crossing making caricatures of the ship’s instructors, and he failed the exam upon his return home, forcing him to re-think his career plans. The store of visual impressions that he amassed at sea, however, never left him. “I learned a lot on my voyage to Brazil,” he recalled in 1874. “I spent countless nights watching the play of light and shadow in the ship’s wake. During the day, I stood on the upper deck gazing at the horizon. That’s how I learned to construct a sky” (quoted in ibid., p. 56).
The first owner of the present canvas was Dr. Thomas Wiltberger Evans of Philadelphia, who had settled in Paris in 1847 and built up a successful practice as a dentist to Napoleon III and other members of the royal family. Evans was best known to Manet as his friend Méry Laurent’s longtime provider. A legendarily charming companion, Méry first met Manet in 1876 and became the closest and most faithful of his female friends late in his life. She was the model for Manet’s L’Automne of 1881 (Rouart and Wildenstein, no. 393) and posed for no fewer than seven pastel portraits the following year. It was probably through Méry that Evans acquired the present painting, which is recorded in inventories of his estate as having hung in his operating chamber. Peggy and David Rockefeller purchased the canvas from Paul Rosenberg in 1956 and hung it in their dining room at Hudson Pines.