Paris by the Sea
|“Sailboats in Sète” (1924). © Adagp, Paris 2008|
What better way to spend a couple of hours on a winter day in Paris than looking at pretty pictures of the sea at the Musée National de la Marine’s exhibition “Albert Marquet: Itinéraires Maritimes”?
This collection of seascapes by the French painter Marquet (1875-1947), who traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa, obsessively painting the sea and harbors in varying light and weather conditions, are deceptively simple. When you enter the gallery, they do indeed look like nothing more than a collection of pretty – almost too pretty – pictures of the sea, with a sailboat here and a beach scene there. A closer examination of his work, however, reveals what extreme mastery of the brush it took to paint these studies of water and light with such great economy.
These are paintings that need to be seen from a distance to be fully appreciated. Up close, they can look flat and even dull, but from across the room they take on depth and come alive. The first painting in the show, “La Porte de Rouen” (1925), is a perfect example: up close, it is uninspiring, but from the other side of the room its glowing hazy sky and brilliant greens positively pop out of the canvas. Unfortunately, many of the paintings are hung in a narrow, curving corridor, which makes it hard to get far enough away to see them properly.
Art critic Georges Besson described the artist as a quiet man who reminded him of a hunter stalking his prey, and that is how he went about his work: returning over and over again to the same spot to catch it in the kind of hazy light, for example, or stormy sky he was seeking.
The influence of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, so popular with artists of the time, can be seen in many of these paintings, with their flat planes of pale color and simple compositions, especially some of the watercolors (notably “Tempête à La Goulette,” 1926, with its dark diagonal pier slashing across the striated sand in the foreground and hazy blue mountains in the distance). Henri Matisse once said that Marquet reminded him of Hokusai, and vice versa, adding that it was not a matter of imitation but of “similitude.”
With his sure hand, Marquet was able to suggest a great deal with very little: a person on a beach is revealed up close to be just a couple of well-placed dabs of paint; what looks like frothy spume on stormy wave in the aforementioned “Tempête à La Goulette” turns out to be an effect achieved with deft comma-shaped pencil strokes.
Along with 77 paintings, the show includes a number of works on paper (the drawings, with their nervous lines, are also powerfully suggestive), and – a real curiosity – a set of azulejos tiles Marquet painted of seaside scenes remembered from his travels, to which he added a few touches of local quaintness that he wouldn’t have shown in his paintings of the same scenes: a minaret, palm tree or donkey, for example.
This show is a big hit with Parisians. One museum employee advises going before noon to avoid the crowds that make it so difficult to see the paintings. You now have only a little more than a week left to see this show.
The exhibition has the added interest of attracting visitors to the marvelous Musée National de la Marine, which I confess I had never been to before. It is packed with all sorts of fascinating treasures – not just the usual handsome model ships (everything from a Chinese junk to a modern container ship and an aircraft carrier), but also the unexpected: a 19th-century steel-and-glass deep-sea-diving suit that would be the envy of Iron Man, for example, or a beautiful 19th-century crystal lighthouse lens.
Musée National de la Marine: Palais de Chaillot, 17, place du Trocadéro, 75116 Paris. Métro : Trocadéro. Tel.: 01 53 65 69 69. Open Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission: €9. Through Feb. 2. www.musee-marine.fr/
© 2009 Paris Update
Click here to respond to this article (your response may be published on this page and is subject to editing).