When Edouard Manet was 16, he spent three months on a ship headed to Brazil, contemplating a career as an officer.
Fortunately for art lovers, his naval ambitions were short-lived. But his ongoing fascination with the sea is evident in every one of the 40 Manet paintings in an exhibit that opened this week at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It's not a subject typically associated with Manet's work; his name more often evokes images of the fife player, the controversial "Olympia," or a vague recollection that he was the "father of Impressionism."
"Manet and the Sea" does an impressive job of not only exploring this understudied section ofthe painter's work, but also giving viewers a fresh look at why he holds that title. His paintings, largely displayed chronologically, are interspersed with works by predecessors and contemporaries that include Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, and Berthe Morisot. The sea has a place in every one.
"By looking at one aspect of an artist's work, it's an invitation to consider the way the art changes over the course of a career," explains Douglas Druick, curator of European paintings, prints, and drawings for the Art Institute.
"But here, we've also put that focus in the context of other artists treating the same subject. You see how Manet responded to Courbet and [Eugène] Delacroix, and how these younger artists responded to him, and how he in turn responded to them."
Manet made his first foray into seascapes in 1864. "The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama" is a monumental work, an homage to the long tradition of historical naval painting (although his "historic" event is a Civil War battle described in the press just weeks earlier).
It's a sharp break with the style of earlier 17th-century Dutch naval paintings. Where those painters were meticulous in their detail and eager to show every bit of the action, Manet made the sea his subject. The horizon line is raised, the ships appear distant, and the broad brushstrokes offer more eloquence than detail.
Frequently, the exhibit juxtaposes paintings by Manet with similar ones by his contemporaries. In one striking instance, Manet's "Steamboat Leaving Boulogne" is displayed on a wall between a Whistler and a Monet, both painted fairly soon after Manet's. The subject matter in each is almost identical and the similarities are remarkable. And yet each is wholly personal.
"They're completely different, but you knew they were each thinking about the other, and the way the other made pictures," says Richard Brettell, a professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas in Dallas and an authority on Impressionism.
Mr. Brettell says the Chicago show is, in many ways, a revelation. "One doesn't think of Manet as a colorist," he marvels. "Going through the exhibition, I was saying to [colleagues] that it almost looked like the Manets had been plugged in and backlit. These brilliant blues and greens, and then his love of blacks and whites, they're almost Fauves in their intensity - much more so than the Impressionists."
Between this examination of the sea paintings and a recent exhibit in New York that looked at Spanish influences on Manet, Brettell adds, "we're starting to understand him more as a complex artist."
Manet, especially later in his career, enjoyed a close association with Monet and other Impressionists, painting with them, buying their work, and inviting Monet to join his nightly gatherings at a Paris cafe.
But he also remained aloof, refusing to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition. While he admired the movement's spontaneity, he generally took more care with his work. "He doesn't toss anything off," says Mr. Druick, noting that even the paintings that look as if they were done rapidly show signs of meticulous scraping and repainting.
But in the paintings near the end of Manet's career, in particular, it becomes clear that the Impressionists also influenced him.
His paintings from Venice, for instance, display vibrant colors and broken brushstrokes, even as the careful compositions set themselves apart from the Impressionists.
The differences between Manet's final two paintings and his early paintings show just how far the artist had traveled in 16 years. The sea is more alive and less monochromatic.
And the paintings, completed when Manet was ill, seem to be an eerie meditation on his own approaching death.
In them, as with so many of the paintings in this exhibition, it's the sea itself, with all its metaphor and personal significance, that's the true subject. The sea is a force of nature, a nearly solid mass, in the Courbet works, and a tranquil, soft expanse in the Whistlers.
The Impressionists are drawn to the variability of the water's surface, a trait exemplified in a painting of a sunset by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Here, the sunset is almost abstract on a canvas comprised of flecks of color.
It's those deeply personal views of the ocean that may stay with visitors long after they've forgotten some of the exhibition's more academic lessons.
"The sea is a mesmerizing force in most people's experience," says Druick. "I hope people will become engaged both from the experience [of viewing the paintings] and also from their own human experience."