Manet was famous for capturing the realism of normal life through his works and with the exception of some forays into religious subjects, such as The Dead Christ with Angels (1864) or Jesus Mocked by Soldiers (1865), Manet brought to the canvas scenes of people and places with bold and distinctive realism. Painting during the Impressionism period, Manet associated with many other artists of that time, in particular Claude Monet, with whom he was friends and the subject of a number of Manet’s paintings.
Unlike most of the Impressionist painters, though, Manet favoured the use of black in his paintings and this is clear to see in Tarring the Boat, where a large section of the canvas is given to the dark hull of the boat which dominates the scene. This is a bold use of paint that creates drama and impact in an otherwise calm setting. Manet was well-travelled and having spent time at sea, would have experienced scenes like this.
Tar was used to seal and protect wooden craft and would preserve the boat for long periods of time. This process was effective in hot climates, as the tar would melt into any splits and cracks in the wood and continue to seal it. The process was hot, potentially dangerous work, involving boiling the tar and applying it using a heat source to the boat. In Manet’s painting, these elements are brought to life by the bright colours of the flames, the physical effort by the men at work shown in their stances and the smoke indicating the wind direction. Together, these create a sensory appreciation of the scene through the intense heat of the fire, the strenuous work and the breeze on an otherwise calm day.
Although the boat is dominant in the painting, the eye is drawn to the fire at the centre of the composition – a burst of heat and action but also the contrast of colour within the painting. The blues and purples from the cool end of the spectrum used for the sea and sky are picked up in the pale sands which account for around two thirds of the foreground and yet Manet has maintained a clever balance with the impact of the fire against the darkness of the boat. Tarring the Boat is currently housed at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.