Being an island nation, British painters have been fascinated with our relationship with the sea for centuries. Elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world, artists have been similarly inspired by the beauty and mystery of our planet’s waters. Let’s take a look back through the years to discover a little more about how the genre has evolved…
The sea and maritime subjects have featured in art works since antiquity, including paintings, etchings, tapestry and pottery – for example, Odysseus and the Sirens, which stretches back to Ancient Greece in 480 B.C. They were also prevalent in some art of the Middle Ages.
While these images were mostly used to form part of a narrative, it wasn’t until the Renaissance period – and the emerging popularity of the landscape genre – that seascapes became more prominent in paintings.
Thanks to the ‘world landscape’ style, founded by Joachim Patinir in the 1520s, seascape paintings began to feature larger expanses of water than ever before – although it was still very rare at this time to see paintings featuring only the sea.
Coastal and ocean scenes were often used to create history paintings, meaning that they contained religious or mythological elements as well – as seen in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1568). Towards the end of the century, however, attitudes shifted towards more of an interest in naval warfare and battle scenes, and artists were often commissioned to depict vessels with great accuracy.
Dutch Golden Age of Painting
During the 17th century, the Dutch Republic ruled the waves surrounding Europe, building their wealth through fishing and sea trade – figures estimate that 95% of traffic from the North Sea to the Baltic was Dutch. This also being the Golden Age of Painting and a heyday for Dutch artists, numerous paintings of the Dutch navy in action were produced during this time.
Classical Dutch artist Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (1566-1640) was said to be the founder of this movement, and changed the perspective from bird’s eye to a more realistic, low-level position. Other notable figures include Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) with his painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), and Willem van de Velde the Elder and his son, with works such as The Surrender of the Royal Prince (1666).
As French and British navies gained more victories at sea, the Dutch style of Marine Art soon spread to other countries, with accuracy becoming increasingly important. English artists such as Thomas Butterworth (1768-1842) used their experience as seamen to produce commissioned paintings, and naval cadets learnt coastal drawing at school.
French-born Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) was an early Romantic whose seascapes featured stormy settings and atmospheric skies – see A Storm on a Mediterranean Coast (1767) and Shipwreck (1772). While in Rome, his works gained popularity with English aristocrats on tour, and he was later commissioned by the French government to create a series of French port scenes.
Whereas traditional history paintings of seascapes included detailed depictions of ships and coastlines, the Romantic period saw a more Impressionist style begin to appear. This can be seen in the emotive works of J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), whose early paintings such as Fishermen at Sea (1796) evolved into The Slave Ship (1840) Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842).
Like Turner, German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was also fascinated by coastal scenes and light over the water; paintings such as The Monk by the Sea (1809) also featured human figures to contrast with the enormity of the ocean.
Realist painters such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) came to reject the fantastical ideals of the Romantic period, portraying scenes they could actually see – from seascapes to nudes. Sea Coast in Normandy (1867) and The Wave (1870) are good examples of this style.
American artist Winslow Homer continued in the realist style, as seen in paintings such as On the Beach (1869); but these works reflect a move towards the end of the century for more leisure-based coastal scenes. This was further developed by Impressionist artists, who used coastlines to study colour and light. Examples include Le Lavandou by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Claude Monet’s The Seine at Port-Villez (1894).
20th Century and Today
By the early 20th century, artists continued to feature serene, idyllic seascapes in their work – see André Derain’s Fishing Boats, Collioure (1905) and William James Glackens’ Crowd at the Seashore (1910). The Fauvist movement saw artists such as Edvard Munch (1863-1944) focus on tranquil waters and create early modernist views of the sea.
But despite other artistic movements, many artists continued to combine elements from the Romantic period and the accuracy of eighteenth-century painters when depicting the sea or coastal scenes. And throughout the twentieth century, there remained artists – such as Montague Dawson (1895–1973) – who specialised in creating detailed portraits of ships.
Do you enjoy seascape painting, or are you considering trying it for the first time? If so, it’s time to start planning your next trip to the coast…
Why not take a look at our Art and Craft supplies to try out seascape for yourself at home.