Into the deep

Art - Richard Cork discovers that Manet was obsessed with more than urban alienation and erotic enco

We think of Manet, essentially, as a metropolitan man. But as well as haunting Parisian boulevards, parks and bars in search of urban alienation and erotic encounters, he had a quite different obsession: the sea. The intensity and eloquence of his maritime leanings are defined in a major exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It amounts to a revelation, overturning our limited perception of a painter who returned, time and again, to the lure of the beach, the breeze and the briny.

The fascination began early. In 1848, at the age of 16, Manet failed the entrance exam to the naval academy. So he set sail on a six-month voyage to Rio de Janeiro and back. It was part of a French naval training scheme, and the adolescent Manet spent hours on deck gazing at the sublime emptiness around him. As far as his seafaring ambitions went, the Brazilian expedition proved disappointing, as he again failed his naval academy exam the following year. But the setback was invaluable, making him realise that he would rather be an artist. And the Amsterdam show demonstrates just how much he had learned about the colour, texture, depth and movement of water on his South American adventure.

A topical event sparked Manet's first ma-jor attempt to produce a seascape. In 1864, the American civil war erupted off Normandy's north-west coast when a Union vessel, the USS Kearsage, attacked and sank a notorious Confederate privateer, the CSS Alabama. The battle was widely reported and illustrated in newspaper articles. Manet studied them all avidly, yet he was not after a faithful reconstruction for its own sake. In the final painting, he relegated the two warring vessels to a surprisingly distant position. The Alabama, already sinking, is little more than a black silhouette against the sea and sky, while it is almost impossible to glimpse the Kear-sage as its cannons continue to fire at their target with relentless accuracy.

Manet was fascinated by the interaction between smoke, clouds and ocean, but more so by a small pilot boat in the foreground, on its way to rescue sailors floating in the water. Closer inspection reveals that the sailors are desperately clutching a broken spar, and their eventual safety is far from certain. The encircling sea looks formidable enough to swamp them at any moment.

Manet's decision to paint a sea battle shows an acute awareness of tradition. On trips to Holland, he admired 17th-century maritime images by Willem van de Velde, who specialised in depicting episodes from the incessant hostilities between the Dutch navy and its rivals. But Manet also revolutionised conventional notions about the possibilities of sea painting. By making notes and sketches on the spot, he injected a far greater sense of spontaneity into his work. At this stage, he composed the final paintings in his studio rather than in the open air, but they were informed by his first-hand studies of nature.

Even the earliest of these marine canvases are full of vitality, and Manet clearly took his cue from the dynamism of his subject. According to his friend Stephane Mallarme, Manet once claimed that "every time he begins a picture, he plunges headlong into it, and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to learn to swim safely is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water".

The sea manifestly liberated Manet. In 1868, annus mirabilis of this enthralling show, he visited Boulogne, filling the pages of a sketchbook with darting and sensuous studies. Some delight in the rhythm of the jetty as it curves out into the Channel; others vie with Turner in their depiction of sunlight on water. The resulting paintings are notable for their diversity. In one canvas, Manet focused on the beach and assembles a satirical array of well-heeled, fashionable figures struggling to maintain their Parisian poise on the smooth, yellow sand. We feel the treacherous force of the wind as it blows one woman's chic, diaphanous veil straight into her face. Toddlers, elaborately attired in the latest summer styles, gape at the absurdity of another belle preening herself like a Japanese courtesan by the water's edge.

Yet Manet also makes us aware of the sea's darker side. One powerful moonlit scene shows a cluster of women huddled on the quayside. They worked as porters for the fishermen, but Manet transformed them into stunned and apprehensive figures, with the air of widows mourning the loss of their husbands in the deep. Manet's response to the danger of life at sea gave some works a tragic quality. For example, a small, deft oil study of two fishing boats isolates them in a marine vastness, and the bleached frailty of one sail is contrasted with the ominous darkness of the other, looming like a ship of death.

In 1871, Manet travelled south to Arcachon, where his family was staying in a chalet overlooking the bay. There, he painted his wife apparently spellbound by the breadth and tranquillity of the luminous water spreading outside her open window. It was an intensely experimental moment for Manet: he began painting outdoors, catching the essence of the bay, its lighthouse and the ever-shifting sailing vessels. Keenly conscious of modernity, he meditated on the difference between traditional craft and rugged steamboats with their thick, black chimneys. On a trip to Holland, he even disrupted an idyllic painting of sails and windmills with the smoke from a steamboat making its polluted way across the water. It resembles a heretical intruder, but Manet must have realised that these boorish hulks would increasingly invade the seas.

Near the end of his life, he turned a simple rowing boat into the focus of a highly dramatic painting. In 1874, the radical and satirical journalist Henri Rochefort, a hero of the French left, had escaped from a penal colony on New Caledonia. It was a bold and triumphant feat, prompting Manet to make a large oil study for a painting of Rochefort and five other prisoners afloat in the South Pacific. Manet began it in 1880, when the daring journalist returned victoriously to Paris, but there is nothing joyful about this vigorously handled image. Instead, Manet stressed Rochefort's vulnerability as he stares with open anxiety from the shadows of the small, alarmingly crowded boat. He does not have the air of a man escaping to freedom. The whole agitated painting is heavy with foreboding, and a smaller version of the scene emphasises even more the craft's defenceless fragility in the empty ocean.

Perhaps Manet now saw the diminutive, anxious figures as a metaphor for his own plight. He was already suffering from the disease of the nervous system that killed him, at the age of 51, two years later. The Rochefort paintings bear directly on his own uncertain future, adrift in a threatening world where he could no longer feel sustained by the sea's mesmeric energy.

"Edouard Manet: impressions of the sea" is at the Van Gogh Museum (tel: 00 31 20 570 5200; www.vangoghmuseum.nl) until 26 September