The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama

I just booked the bus tickets to take the Hayfoot and a friend to the Barnes Museum in early November. We visited the old Barnes four years ago and are eager to see what they have done with the new facility. I have heard mixed reviews. Another great museum in the City of Brotherly Love is the Philadelphia Art Museum. One of the works in its collection is Manet’s The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.”  For some reason the exhibition catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2003 show Manet and the American Civil War came through my in box the other day. Alas this one somehow fell under my radar nine years ago, probably because I returned to graduate school in January ’03 and was too busy. I am sitting here having my Sunday coffee entranced by the story of Manet and the Kearsarge. The Met Museum website explains:

On June 19, 1864, the United States warship Kearsarge sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in one of the most celebrated naval engagements of the American Civil War. The battle was widely reported in the illustrated press and riveted public attention on both sides of the Channel. When Kearsarge later anchored off the French resort town of Boulogne-sur-Mer it was thronged by curious visitors, one of whom was the artist Édouard Manet. Although he did not witness the historic battle, Manet made a painting of it partly as an attempt to regain the respect of his colleagues after having been ridiculed for his works in the 1864 Salon. Manet’s picture of the naval engagement and his portrait of the victorious Kearsarge belong to a group of his seascapes of Boulogne whose unorthodox perspective and composition would profoundly influence the course of French painting.

It is a fascinating story on many levels, artistically, socially, diplomatically, and otherwise. For one thing it is often lost on us that the rest of the world, or at least Europe, was paying attention to our Civil War. It makes one see Manet with a different perspective as well.  Check it out here, and enjoy your Sunday.