This painting of the deck of a ship at sea is an early work by an artist who from his own time onward has been synonymous with modernism. Édouard Manet is generally remembered as a painter of modern urban life, whose major images reflect the social and psychological ambiguities of his time. This work, which stands at the beginning of Manet’s career, belongs to a minor theme in his oeuvre, but one to which he returned many times throughout his life: the theme of the sea and ships. In most of Manet’s other paintings of this subject matter, it is the sea that occupies most of the canvas, but the interest of The ship’s deck is in the ship itself.
We see the deck, masts and rigging in close-up, from the viewpoint of a passenger (or sailor), and the sea is merely glimpsed on either side. A sense of immediacy is created by a number of factors, including the way in which the composition is cropped at the left. The kind of pictorial structure used here, with its suggestion of the random and the seemingly spontaneous, is one that Manet carried with him from the early 1860s until the last years of his career.
The virtuoso brushwork, the rapid and fluid touch in this painting, further imbues the composition with an ‘uncomposed’ appearance, while the restrained palette and tonal harmonies contribute to an overall atmosphere of stillness and calm.
Text by Rose Stone from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 47.