The Art of a Wine-Dark Sea

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"Free soul, thou shalt always cherish the sea," wrote Charles Baudelaire. The sea he means is the Mediterranean, the "wine-dark sea" that worked its magic on writers from Homer to Hemingway and enchanted the most celebrated painters of modern times. Thus the artistic event of the autumn season at the Grand Palais, Paris, called "The Mediterranean, from Courbet to Matisse" presents over 90 paintings, including many chefs d'oeuvres, spanning the second half of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century — the works of painters whose names resonate through the annals of modern art: Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Signac, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse prominent among them. They represent the major artistic upheavals of the period including Impressionism, Pointillism, Neo-impressionism and Fauvism, in enduring testimonials to the spell that the Mediterranean casts.

This was not always the case. Although the Mediterranean, cradle of civilization to the Greeks, had already hypnotized Homer, mid-19th century civilization regarded it as a venue for fashionable winter resorts or sanatoriums where consumptives came to die. The sand and the sea and the sun held little attraction, but with the belated arrival of the French industrial revolution and the concomitant advent of the railroads, the Mediterranean began to attract avant-garde writers who composed lyrical hymns to this watery Eden. Artists were not far behind in discovering a painterly paradise of incomparable luminosity, vibrant colors and ravishing landscapes.

The exhibition embraces the coastal region from Catalonia to the Gulf of Genoa, and is divided into nine sections: "Discovery of the Mediterranean Landscape"; "Shores"; "Rocks"; "Mythologies"; "Through the Trees"; "Holiday Resorts"; "Ports, Fishing, Sails"; "Luxuriances"; and "Openings onto the Sea." Each section presents the expected masterpieces, beautiful and breathtaking, throbbing with joy and sensuality, landscapes flattened by the sun, awash in luminosity, metamorphosed into spheres or cubes or dots or splashes of primary colors. But it also includes picture postcard images, some pleasant surprises, blatant disappointments and lesser but not always uninteresting works of artists who were never able to become truly great.

Gustave Courbet's diminutive painting, The Shore at Palavas, opens the exhibition. It clearly depicts the free soul longed for by Baudelaire, who was a great admirer of this fellow subversive. On a deserted beach, a tiny figure of a man — Courbet himself — pays homage to the immensity of the sea in a grand gesture of defiance: brandishing his artist's cap, arm boldly outstretched, an infinitesimal figure challenging the legendary mare nostrum. The sea is calm, yet disturbing with its dark, opaque blue and limitless horizon. The azure sky inhabits half of the painting, thick near the horizon with billowing white clouds, suggesting metaphysical longing.

In "Shores," Cezanne's L'Estaque, View of the Gulf of Marseilles, along with two other paintings of the Provençal Alps by the same artist on view, thrice proves that he is the master of them all. Here luminosity gives way to structure, forms and subdued colors highlighting the sea as a great triangle cutting into the land and mountains beyond the coastline. Three early works of Picasso attest that he was still searching for his unique inspiration. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's lovely Shadow of the Boat depicts a black shell of a fishing bark and mauve shadows of an invisible sailboat on an undulating sand taken up again in a narrow cloud bank skirting a changing sea.

In "Mythologies" Frederic Montenard's Cemetery in Provence confronts us with the pervasive role death played in a region dedicated to ephemeral pleasure, but which, for many, was the last stop on the way to eternity. Desolate dunes, crosses and graves surround a small boy kneeling, the sea beyond as the hereafter rendered in pale tones. In "Luxuriances," quintessential impressionist Monet's The Villa Trees at Bordighera dazzles us with its rainbow palette of pink and blue mountains, vegetation in every hue of green, a triumph of light and color.

Matisse's astonishing exercise in a minimalist, quasi-abstract representation of a French Window at Collioure closes the exhibition. "I have begun to use pure black as a color of light and not as a color of obscurity," he explained. And indeed, strips of window defined by muted colors of green and blue and gray open onto a deep black plane stretching over half the canvas. In casting off the superfluous, it is the culmination of the artist's search for "balance, purity, serenity."

We have come a long way from the vast expanse of Courbet's Mediterranean. In 1854, Courbet saluted the sea with exultation. In 1914 Matisse looked out of a window at the same sea and what did he see? Blackness.