Edouard Manet and George Meredith: Two Interpretations of ‘The Heroic in History’, Hannes Frey
The American Civil War challenged the political imagination of Victorian elites. Abolition emerged as a primary concern, yet other issues resonated as well, including political liberty, the right to self-determination
and imperial policy. In Britain, the outcome of the war was seen to be relevant to the domestic struggle over the expansion of the voting franchise. Beyond political calculations, attitudes were shaped by deep cultural affinities, including an association of heroism and chivalry with the Southern cause. In 1864, a naval engagement between two American warships—USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama—took place in the English Channel. It was closely watched by the French and British press and elicited a range of artistic responses. Within weeks of the battle, a painting by the French Impressionist Edouard Manet and a text by the British poet and novelist George Meredith offered dramatically different interpretations of the event. Comparing the two artefacts, this article explores how notions of heroism were constructed and challenged in a rapidly evolving political culture.