- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

The battle between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama, which took place on June 19, 1864, in the English Channel just off the coast of Cherbourg, France, was one of the most spectacular naval engagements of the Civil War.

As many as 15,000 people watched the battle from the nearby cliffs and windows. Although he was not there, 34-year-old Edouard Manet, who was trying to establish himself in the art world, painted what was to become the most famous depiction of the battle. His painting, now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had a profound influence on Manet’s career and the development of French impressionism.

After a 90-minute battle — during which the two warships fought starboard to starboard — the Alabama was overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the Kearsarge. Three French pilot boats and a British yacht, the Deerhound, rescued Raphael Semmes, captain of the Alabama, and 50 of his crew members. The burning Alabama sank stern-first into the waves and disappeared until it was found in 1984, six miles off the coast at a depth of 185 feet.

Hardly two weeks after the battle, sketches of the scene appeared in French newspapers, and shortly thereafter, a painting by Manet, “The Battle of the USS ‘Kearsarge’ and the CSS ‘Alabama,’ ” hung in the window of a small Paris gallery. Inspired by the illustrations and news reports, Manet had created his own version of the scene, placing a French pilot boat in the foreground and, beyond it, the Alabama, smoldering in the blue-green sea.

It is not clear why Manet painted this picture, except that it was topical. His decision was fortunate, for it piqued his interest in seascapes. A day or so after the battle painting went on display in Paris, Manet traveled to Boulogne-sur-Mer and there set up his easel in the harbor and began his famous seascapes. It was his oversized painting of the naval battle, however, that motivated Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet, Berthe Morisot and other impressionists to abandon the corridors of the Louvre and head to Normandy to paint near the coastal resorts.

Quite by chance, Manet got to see the Kearsarge in person when it dropped anchor in the harbor. Ferried out to the ship, Manet toured the vessel. He sketched the scene and painted two impressions of the sloop as it lay at anchor, one an ink-and-watercolor, the other an oil painting called “The Kearsarge at Boulogne.”

This painting featured a sailboat navigating in the aquamarine foreground and, on the horizon, several boats nearing the Kearsarge, which in this view is seen as a menacing black silhouette. A closer look shows an apparent anomaly: The flags and streamers on the Kearsarge blow in one direction, while the sails on the boats seem to billow in the opposite direction. This lead critics to argue that, as was the case with the Kearsarge and Alabama battle painting, Manet was not painting what he saw.

Some art historians say that “The Battle of the USS ‘Kearsarge’ and the CSS ‘Alabama’ ” is Manet’s most important work and the one that gained the highest praise during his lifetime. The painting received an excellent review by a prominent art critic whose articles appeared in publications such as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Encouraged by this review, Manet returned to Paris determined to steer a new course, and his break with the past (hence his rebel influence with the developing impressionist school) was nearly complete when the battle painting was accepted by the judges for exhibit in the 1872 Paris Salon.

The battle scene is also Manet’s most enigmatic painting. It is a striking composition, painted boldly in a rich but narrow range of blue-green. There is no central focus. Instead, Manet placed several ships over a wide sea that rises up to fill nearly all of the canvas. The viewer sits above the waves, as if on a ship from which one sees a small boat churning from the lower-left toward the disabled Alabama. Some accounts even suggest, erroneously, that Manet was aboard that pilot boat.

Oddly, Manet distances the Kearsarge on the canvas; it is relegated to a hardly discernible blur in the background, enveloped in smoke. In fact, Manet gives us a better look at the Deerhound to the top right than he does the Kearsarge. In contrast, other contemporary sketches show the Kearsarge presiding in authority over the Alabama’s destruction. To Manet, however, the masts of the Kearsarge are indistinguishable from the Alabama’s and are barely noticeable in the distance, engulfed in a black cloud. Those unfamiliar with the outcome of the battle might have to guess who won or lost in Manet’s version.

These eccentricities have led some historians to speculate whether Manet was making a political statement with what they regard as his negative portrayal of the Kearsarge. According to this theory, through his disparaging portrait of the Kearsarge, Manet is expressing his opposition to the pro-Confederate leanings of Napoleon III and his dreams of empire in Mexico.

This theory would not explain, however, why the Alabama is given such a romantic, stylized prominence in Manet’s painting when he, like most Europeans, disdained slavery and recognized that it was at the core of the Civil War. It is just as plausible to suggest, for example, that Manet simply saw in the drama of the sinking Alabama an emotionally and aesthetically attractive subject.

We do know that Manet was dependent upon conflicting newspaper reports and widely different illustrations of the battle scene (one notable artist of the day actually had the Kearsarge flying the Confederate flag) and perhaps was less keen on accuracy than he was on painting an innovative and provocative work of art.

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University Law School. His most recent book is “Courage in Blue and Gray: Tales of Valor From the Civil War.”

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