SALEM — From a marketing standpoint, whoever thought up “Impressionists on the Water” was a sky-sniffing, steely-eyed diviner. You thought the Impressionist well had dried up? That merely using the word “Impressionist” in the title of an exhibition was no longer guaranteed to bring in the crowds?
I give you “Impressionists on the Water” at the Peabody Essex Museum. With plenty of padding, it’s a show that’s far from overflowing with masterpieces. But it’s solid enough, and has trumps up its sleeve.
We know (forgive the gender stereotyping in what follows: I’m just trying to think like a marketing genius) that anything Impressionist will pull in women of a certain age (and me). The genius of this exhibition is that their salty, skeptical, wisecracking husbands should find it equally satisfying.
The old guys might not care overly for daubs of paint capturing dappled sunlight on water (“Monet, Monet, Monet,” as a friend of mine once yawned. “It’s a rich man’s whirl!”). But they’re bound to be turned on by yacht racing, boatbuilding, and the techniques and measurements of hull-design.
Both things are provided in spades by this exhibition. In every room, the paintings, prints, and photographs on the wall are complemented by small model ships, half-model hulls, and larger model skiffs, clippers, and rowing boats.
“Welcome aboard!” mumble the docents as you enter. There’s even an extremely natty re-creation of a floating studio of the kind Monet used to paint in. (Better than a den, study, or shed, this little “man cave” lets you literally float away from the tribulations of domesticity.)
The show, which delves into the often surprising connections between the Impressionists and their watery subjects, comes to Salem from San Francisco. It was conceived and organized by Christopher Lloyd, Phillip Dennis Cate, and Daniel Charles for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and coordinated in Salem by the Peabody Essex’s Daniel Finamore.
It reminds us, among other things, that Monet was brought up near Le Havre and started out as a marine painter; that Pissarro was the son of a ship chandler and crossed the Atlantic four times; that Bazille was a champion rower; and that Manet, who crossed the Atlantic while in training to become a naval officer, always loved the sea (fully one-third of his output was devoted to it).
But above all, it reminds us that the Impressionists were among the earliest artists to make use of the new railways connecting Paris with the seaside resorts — former fishing villages — of Trouville, Deauville, and Etretat and with the outer Paris suburbs of Asnieres, Argenteuil, and Bougival, where Parisians played at yacht-racing, rowing, and other forms of liquid leisure.
These places and activities provided key subject matter for the Impressionists. As Lloyd writes in the catalog: “The first priority of the Impressionists was to observe a world in flux.” What better subject, therefore, than water?
Unfortunately on the show’s voyage from San Francisco to Salem, a few things seem to have been jettisoned. Major paintings by Seurat, Signac, and Vuillard didn’t make it, although two big paintings by Caillebotte, as well as, among others, a stunning little Matisse were not in the San Francisco show but are in Salem. Swings and roundabouts. But you can’t help noticing that some of the larger Peabody Essex galleries seem at once over-designed (a perennial problem at PEM) and startlingly empty of art. And the informative catalog, which was clearly designed to enjoy an independent life, bears only a tenuous relationship to the show.
And yet in some ways, the shift in emphasis from painting to boats and other maritime concerns suits the venue. The Peabody Essex, after all, is famous for its maritime holdings. The emphasis on actual boats in this show fits right in.
Although the show is organized by theme rather than chronology, it does open with a bit of pre-history: We see paintings by Claude-Joseph Vernet, the greatest of French marine painters, Eugene Isabey, and the lesser-known Antoine Roux. All hint at an earlier tradition of marine painting in France. But it’s very tokenistic: One gets no real sense of the development of the tradition, of the important influence of 17th-century Dutch marine painting, or of the vital connection between French Romanticism and the sea.
The star attraction in this early gallery is a set of 16 etchings, called “The Boat Trip,” made in 1861 by Charles-Francois Daubigny. These pungent, good-humored works record the artist’s adventures in a floating studio that he had a friend adapt from an old unused ferry. Daubigny used the vessel as a watery perch from which to paint. Nicknamed “Le Botin,” it was a cramped but cozy houseboat in which, under sail and with oar, Daubigny navigated the rivers around Paris.
The etchings, which were published in 1876, begin with a depiction of a convivial lunch before boarding Le Botin. Daubigny goes on to show scenes of wine guzzling on board, the trading of insults with farm laborers on the shore, the search for an inn at night, line fishing, and — most importantly — painting.
The series would undoubtedly have been seen and enjoyed by the Impressionists. Monet was so impressed that he built his own studio boat, which he depicted lovingly in 1876 (the painting is here).
The show has sections dedicated to “Harbors and Coasts,” to “Rivers — Paris and Environs,” and “Open Ocean.” Amid an abundance of prints by the likes of Signac and Eugene Delatre, and a smattering of photographs by Gustave le Gray, there are standout paintings by Ludovic-Napoleon Lepic (“Boats on the Beach at Berck”), Alfred Sisley (“Banks of the Loing”), Daubigny (“The Village of Gloton”) and Renoir (the marvelous “Oarsmen at Chatou”).
But the real reason you would be mad to miss this show — its ace in the hole — is the gallery dedicated to the paintings and boat designs of Gustave Caillebotte.
There are three points to make about Caillebotte. The first is that he was a marvelous, long underrated painter. He could be plodding at times, and he was certainly not as devoted to Impressionist flux as the likes of Monet and Sisley. His pictures, although bright and light-loving, are heavily worked and fastidiously composed. But he painted many masterpieces, including the Musee d’Orsay’s “The Floorscrapers” and the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day.”
Two years ago, recognizing Caillebotte’s quality (and the scarcity of available works by him), the Museum of Fine Arts sold works from its collection by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Gauguin, to buy a single Caillebotte: “A Man at His Bath.” In this show, “Skiffs on the Yerres,” and “Regatta at Argenteuil” are almost — but not quite — in the same category.
The second point about Caillebotte is that he was respected and well-loved by his Impressionist confreres. He was the glue that kept the group together.
Born into wealth, he bought paintings by his comrades, he convened gatherings at his house, and he organized several of the later Impressionist exhibitions, renting the galleries, designing the catalogs, and financing the advertising. When he died, he gave a great slab of his superb collection to the French state.
The final thing about Caillebotte, and the most germane in the context of this show, is that he was mad about yachting. Having spent much of his childhood in his family’s country home on the banks of the Yerres, where he learned to love water, he joined a Paris sailing club with his brother Martial in 1876.
He bought and raced his first racing yacht two years later, and that same year he became a financial backer of Le Yacht, France’s first yachting periodical. Caillebotte raced annually, usually with Martial by his side, and routinely took first place. They even had a standardized handicap rule, “the Caillebotte Rule,” named after them.
Gustave also began designing his own yachts in 1880. Over his lifetime, he designed 25 of them. Many were breakthrough designs, as suggested by the number of regattas they won. The boats were mostly constructed in a modern shipyard Caillebotte helped to finance. It opened in 1884 just up the road from the property he and Martial had bought three years earlier on the Left Bank of the Seine.
As both historical curiosities and objects of immense aesthetic satisfaction, Caillebotte’s boat designs make a marvelous complement to his paintings. Together, they make up an entrancing little show within a show. I would have been content if they were the whole thing.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.