Boulogne-sur-Mer was Manet’s source of inspiration for his seascapes. When he first visited this French coastal town in 1864, it was not yet the worldly seaside resort it was later to become. By the time Manet painted this work – four years later – Boulogne had been transformed into a tourist hot spot for Parisians.
Manet included several beach visitors in this scene of the jetties in Boulogne-sur-Mer. He first drew these figures individually in his sketchbook, subsequently arranging them separately or in groups in his elaborated composition. For the ‘Pier’ he selected, a woman with a parasol who, together with a little boy, leans over the railing at the right, and, seen from behind, a young girl and an overweight woman with a shawl in the middle. Manet depicted four more people on the quay gazing out over the sea with just a few deft strokes.
The composition of Manet’s ‘Pier’ may be described as controversial for the time. The quay runs diagonally across the picture plane, dividing the scene in two. Below is the sea with little crests on the waves, while further back the water and sky form a vague, inseparable entity including a few sailing vessels. The large sailing boat at anchor between the two piers is the core of the scene, both compositionally and in terms of subject matter.