Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Édouard Manet had almost reached the age of 40 in 1872 without having sold more than a couple of paintings. He had gained notoriety during the 1860s with paintings such as Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia both of which had provoked furiously venomous reviews. But he doggedly continued to submit paintings for consideration by the Salon jury in subsequent years despite enduring constant abuse from reviewers, occasional rejection by the jury and precious little interest from prospective buyers.
However, in January 1872 his fortunes were transformed when the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel visited Manet at his studio in the rue de Saint-Pétersbourg and bought two canvases. To Manet’s astonishment, he returned twice over the space of the next few days and bought nearly everything he had (although the astute Durand-Ruel baulked at Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia) making Manet richer to the tune of more than 50,000 francs. Although Manet had been able to support himself from private means, this windfall headed off incipient financial pressures and so it was a more solvent painter who spent the summer of 1874 at a property owned by the Manet family in Gennevilliers on the Seine just outside Paris. Nearby, at Argenteuil, Monet had made his home and the two artists painted together during Manet’s summer sojourn. They had become friends in the late 1860s when Manet invited the younger painter to join him at the regular gatherings at the Café Guerbois. Monet later said of these evenings ‘Nothing could have been more interesting than our discussions.’
Pottering about in boats had become a fashionable pastime and both painters reflected this in their choice of subject matter – Monet turned out a number of views of the river full of sailing boats; Manet painted Monet in his floating studio and he painted this arresting canvas. The gentleman guiding the skiff (resplendent in straw boater) is almost certainly Rudolphe Leenhoff, Manet’s brother-in-law, but the identity of the woman is unknown.
There is no doubt that Monet’s preference for painting en plein air had a significant influence on Manet’s output in 1874. He had painted outdoors before on trips to the Normandy seaside but now, following Monet’s lead, he experimented with a much lighter palette, endeavouring to capture the fleeting effects of natural light. Boating is an ‘Impressionist’ painting from the choice of subject matter (the middle class enjoying their leisure – la vie moderne) to the flickering application of paint, seen to particular effect in the young woman’s diaphanous summer dress and the eddies of the water created by the passage of the boat.
But although the influence of Monet and Renoir (who also occasionally joined them at Argenteuil) can clearly be seen in this painting, Manet did not consider himself to be part of their rebellious artistic circle. 1874 was notable of course for the first exhibition held in April that year by the Société anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs etc in a direct challenge to the power of the Salon. Monet and Renoir, together with many other artists including Pissarro and Degas exhibited paintings, one of which, Monet’s Impression: Sunrise gave rise, via a sneering review in the satirical magazine Le Charivari to the name later adopted by the group. Manet was asked to send canvases but refused, partly it seems because of the inclusion of work by Cézanne, which he could not abide, but also because he still saw the Salon as his best route to success.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1874 Jean-François Millet: Haystacks: Autumn, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1874 James Tissot: The Ball on Shipboard, London, Tate
1875 Gustave Caillebotte: The Floorscrapers, Paris, Musée d’Orsay