Isabey dreamed of becoming a sailor. Refusing to relinquish his passion, he became a marine specialist. Inspired by English painters, notably Constable and Turner, this romantic artist painted the ocean in all its moods. A perfectionist, he attended to every detail and enthusiastically embraced the innovations in naval construction. “Isabey is the only painter capable of building a boat,” said Jongking, one of his students.
Exhibited in the Salon of 1836, The Burial at Sea of a Marine Officer Serving under Louis XVI elicited surprise. The subject is impressive: the stormy sky, the rough sea, the sails flapping in the wind and the body, enveloped in a white shroud, thrown into the sea at the sound of the canon, marking the absolution of a marine officer whose identity remains unknown. This painting recalls the sad metaphor of the human condition—the indentured sailor recruited from childhood—provided by Victor Hugo: “He alone battles as waves grow steep / He sails into the deep and into the night / Hard work! all is black, all is cold, without light.” Alfred de Musset spoke of the work as a tour de force: “In my opinion, this canvas merits fulsome praise. The execution is magnificent, and the composition so forceful that it stuns at first sight. I have heard the artist reproached for having shown but a part of the vessel. Nothing could be more undeserved, as it is precisely this rough portrayal that lends the scene its power.”