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Sunday, December 30, 2012


Dutch Man-of-War and Fishing Boats in a Breeze, ca. 1590, Hendrick Vroom
If you walk through just about any traditional art gallery on, you will find landscapes, often dozens of them. But the chances are (unless the gallery is within sight of the sea), you can probably count on the fingers of one hand (if that) the number of seascapes hanging from the same walls. You would think that 70% of the earth's surface was dry land, not the other way around. Yet the seascape has been around every bit as long as the landscape. I'm not talking, in either case, about the stylized, often symbolic landscapes and seascapes painted by ancient artists as mere backgrounds for other subjects. I mean the serious study of the land and the sea as separate, individual painting genres. In both cases, we look to the Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Actually, the seascape came first. The Dutch painter Hendrick Vroom painted Dutch Man-of-War and Fishing Boat in a Breeze (top) around 1590. The Dutch landscape master, Jacob van Ruisdael, didn't begin his career until around 1650. Hobbema and van Goyen were still later than that.

The Wave, 1870, Gustave Courbet
It's not surprising that the Dutch were the first ones to "take to the sea," so to speak, with paint and canvas. Holland was a country virtually torn from the sea in the first place, and largely dependent upon it for its trade and defence as well. Not surprising either is the fact that they apparently found it more fascinating than the land from which they painted. The sea is very often more dramatic, and if you've ever tried to paint it, especially when it's having a "bad day," you know it's also far more challenging. Unlike the land, which is "rock solid," painting the sea is like dealing with a rambunctious child, it doesn't hold still. It's unpredictable, ever-changing, demanding, and immensely fascinating--even hypnotic in its power and majesty. Gustave Courbet's 1870 The Wave (above) is a tremendous example of this.

The Fighting 'Temeraire' Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1839, J.M.W. Turner
Artists' fascination with the sea only begins with the water itself. Being clear and reflective, it presents an opportunity to explore atmospheric color unlike any other natural phenomena with the possible exception of its frigid cousin, snow. Then there's the effect of weather--wind, clouds, rain, or all of the above as in a storm, stirring the almost unfathomable aquatic expanse far off toward the horizon. England's J. M. W. Turner with his classic The Fighting 'Temeraire' Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, (above, 1839) was one of the first to explore all these environmental marine elements inherent in the seascape.

The Sea I, 1912, Emile Nolde
Seascapes also present all kinds of composition challenges as well. They demand careful placement of the horizon, either high or low in the painting, some manner of land or vessel by which to gauge their scale, and a masterful painting technique in trying to render the feeling of depth without much help from the usual forms of linear perspective. Whether painting the placid waters of a Normandy resort beach as did Eugene Boudin in The Beach at Trouville (bottom, 1864), or man battling the wild turbulence of the churning sea as in Emile Nolde's The Sea I (left, 1912), there's no hiding an unfamiliarity on the part of the artist with either the sea or the paint used in rendering it. Yet, despite its challenges, despite its beauty, despite its long history at the hand of some of the most talented artists to ever wield a brush or brace an easel against and offshore breeze, seascapes are very likely outnumbered by landscapes ten to one on gallery walls. It doesn't seem fair.
The Beach at Trouville, 1864, Eugene Boudin

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