From the mid-1860s until his death two decades later, the sea constituted a principal theme in Manet's work. He painted around forty major seascapes during this period, more than ten percent of his total output, and also explored the motif in numerous watercolors and drawings. The artist's fascination with sea life dates to his youth, when he spent several months sailing from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro aboard a merchant marine vessel, while training to become an officer in the French navy. Although he abandoned this tentative career after failing the entrance exam, his experience at sea remained a lifelong source of inspiration. In 1874, twenty-six years after his journey, he wrote to the painter Charles Toché, "I learned a lot on my voyage to Brazil. 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 exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2003, p. 56). Manet returned to the seashore frequently during the 1860s and 1870s, painting both local fishermen and fashionable Parisian vacationers on France's Channel coast. As Juliet Wilson-Bareau has written:
"Edouard Manet had a unique relationship with the sea. He could capture as few of his contemporaries could the impression of a sailing ship skimming through the waves before a stiff breeze or the smoky progress of a packet boat chugging its way across the Channel. The variety of his seascapes and the techniques that he developed to paint them give art lovers a rich sequence of motifs and pictorial strategies to examine, while his evident delight in the complexities and atmosphere of harbor scenes will impress both amateur and professional sailors and those whose business is the sea... Manet seeks to involve viewers by pulling their gaze into the watery depths or toward a distant horizon. They experience the taste of salt spray, they are buffeted by sea breezes if not gales, and they are invited to consider the many types and shapes of vessels that Manet depicts and the varying viewpoints and terrains that the artist experienced on his seaside visits" (ibid., pp. 55 and 91).
Although Manet is known to have visited at least ten different towns on the Channel coast over the course of his career, he spent more time at Boulogne, where the present seascape was painted, than at any other site. Throughout the nineteenth century, Boulogne was one of the most important commercial ports in France, as well as a principal point of entry for steamer traffic from Britain. The town's popularity as a holiday resort for wealthy Parisians dates to the mid-1820s, when the second bathing club in France was constructed there. Over the course of the next four decades, it became increasingly accessible and attractive for vacationers. In 1848, rail service from Paris was extended to Boulogne; in 1867, the town was linked by rail to Calais, placing it on the direct transit line between Paris and London. The old bathing club was replaced by a larger and more lavish one in 1863, ushering in a new era of prosperity for the resort. Shortly thereafter, a popular guidebook described Boulogne as follows: "Those who like elegant society will rarely find a [bathing] establishment more comfortable or better appointed" (quoted in T. Reff, Manet and Modern Paris, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1982, p. 153).
Manet had first gone to Boulogne on holiday with his family in his youth, although these visits are not well-documented. During his voyage to Rio de Janeiro, he mentioned in a letter to his mother a kind of seagull that she "must sometimes have seen in Boulogne" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2003, p. 61). Nearly all his paintings and drawings of the site, however, were made in the summers of 1864 and 1868, during two lengthy sojourns that Manet took with his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff. (The second of these trips has often been dated to 1869, but recent scholarship has conclusively established the correct date of 1868; see ibid., p. 96, note 76). In 1864, Manet focused his artistic attention principally on the harbor itself, painting boats at anchor (fig. 1) or setting out to sea (Rouart and Wildenstein, no. 78). In 1868, by contrast, he chose to paint the holiday aspect of Boulogne, anticipating Monet's views of Trouville two years later. In one of his most important canvases from that sojourn, Manet depicts women and children in elegant costume, sitting or strolling on the seashore (RW, no. 148); in another, he captures the brightly dressed crowd gathered around a steamer as it prepares to depart for Britain, a daily event that travel guides extolled as entertainment for vacationers (RW, no. 147). Even a moonlit view of a group of women in Boulonnais headdress on the quay, awaiting the return of the fishing boats, is a tourist's view of a picturesque local event, painted from a second-story window overlooking the harbor (fig. 2).
The present canvas is one of a pair of views of the piers at Boulogne that Manet painted during the 1868 trip. The second painting of this motif currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (fig. 3). In the present version, the center of the scene is dominated by two popular tourist destinations, a restaurant capped by a shaded belvedere (fig. 4) and an adjacent cabin that housed an oyster bar. In the Amsterdam composition, fashionably dressed figures, including women holding parasols, gather along the railings of the piers, looking down at the water or out at the sailboats in the distance. For both works, Manet has selected a vantage point that hides the narrow seaway between the two parallel jetties, so that the boats passing between them seem to ride on top of the wooden structure. The result is a distinctive mixture of topographical accuracy and perspectival trickery; as Robert Herbert has written, "The effect is to puzzle us slightly but also to activate the remarkably flattened planes that make this such as striking composition" (in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 274). A sketchbook that Manet used in 1868 contains several detailed drawings that record the structure of the jetties, with their cross-braced wood pilings. It is likely, therefore, that the artist worked out the complex composition of the two oil paintings back in his studio in Paris, using the drawings that he had made on site as a guide. Juliet Wilson-Bareau has written:
"[The] two paintings underline his ability to make an everyday scene or view into an intensely experienced slice of life and to project it as a masterly two-dimensional construction of line and color on canvas. The smaller of the two, Jetty and Belvedere at Boulogne [the present picture], offers the more complex and animated view: the end of a stone bastion and continuation of the wooden jetty, the restaurant with its rooftop deck and diners, and the cabin built over an oyster bed to the right. In Jetty at Boulogne [fig. 3], the view of the piers that lie parallel to the picture plane is no doubt located farther along, between the restaurant and the end of the eastern jetty. In both paintings, ships of various types, based on drawings from his sketchbook, float on the distant sea. The atmosphere is limpid, the colors are clear and clean, and the darker tones of the sea are rich and translucent" (exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2003, pp. 69-70).
After 1868, Manet is known to have returned to Boulogne only once, probably in 1871 or 1872. He painted just a single canvas during this trip, a scene of men and women playing croquet on a lawn overlooking the sea (RW, no. 173). During the summer of 1873, his last visit ever to the Channel coast, he chose to stay instead at the small fishing village of Berck. With the exception of one painting that shows his wife Suzanne and his brother Eugène reclining on the beach (RW, no. 188), his entire output from the trip to Berck depicts the arduous labors of the fishermen.
(fig. 1) Edouard Manet, Le "Kearsarge" à Boulogne, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 26000695
(fig. 2) Edouard Manet, Port de Boulogne au clair de lune, 1868. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 26000688
(fig. 3) Edouard Manet, La jetée de Boulogne, 1868. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. BARCODE 26000671
(fig. 4) Photograph of the jetties at Boulogne, circa 1880. BARCODE 26000664