The Sights and Sounds of the Sea Have Inspired American Artists for Generations

Exhibition spotlights crashing waves, maritime voyages and seafaring vessels painted by Georgia O’Keeffe, Normal Rockwell and Jacob Lawrence

William Trost Richards, Along the Shore, 1903
William Trost Richards, Along the Shore, 1903 Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Photography by Steven Watson

The term maritime art typically refers to a set genre of 17th- to 19th-century paintings. In these works, imposing ships wage war, navigate unfamiliar waters, or engage in acts of military and historic import, all while framed against the sea and the sky.

As the ongoing exhibition “In American Waters” demonstrates, these nautical paintings are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the manifold ways in which American artists have rendered the sea in their work. Alternatively acting as a watery metaphor, a source of ever-changing beauty or the setting for epic journeys, the ocean has been an enduring muse for artists across generations.

In other words, says Dan Finamore, a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), in a statement, “marine painting is so much more than ship portraits.”

Finamore, who co-curated the exhibition with Austen Barron Bailly of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, adds, “Through more than 90 works, we can trace changing attitudes about the symbolic and emotional resonance of the sea in America and see how contemporary perspectives are informed by marine traditions.”

Fitz Henry Lane, Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851
Fitz Henry Lane, Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851 Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum / Photo by Mark Sexton

“In American Waters” is on view at the Salem, Massachusetts, museum through October 3. The show will then travel to Crystal Bridges, where it will welcome visitors from November 6 to the end of January 2022.

Featured artists include Modernist George O’Keeffe and contemporary portraitist Amy Sherald, who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s official likeness. Other individuals included in the exhibition are Norman Rockwell, Jacob Lawrence, Kay WalkingStick, Hale Woodruff and Valerie Hegarty.

All told, curator Sarah Chasse tells Jared Bowen of WGBH Boston, the show amounts to a “wonderful exploration of American identity through the lens of the sea.”

O’Keeffe, for her part, renders a gloomy beachfront scene almost abstract in Wave, Night (1928), using shades of dark blue and white to mark “the beach before her, the far distant horizon with a lighthouse, a wave rolling at her and the vacant space” in between, as Finamore tells WGBH.

In Sherald’s Precious jewels by the sea (2019), the aquamarine ocean peeks out from behind a group of young, Black beachgoers: two girls seated on the shoulders of two boys, all holding the viewer’s gaze. As Dinah Cardin writes for PEM’s blog, Sherald creates “images of things that we normally do but we don’t get to see in spaces like museums.” 

Amy Sherald, Precious jewels by the sea, 2019
Amy Sherald, Precious jewels by the sea, 2019
  © Amy Sherald / Image courtesy the artist and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Photo: Joseph Hyde

These activities include such mundane events as “Black people going to the beach,” adds Sherald. “It’s really just about creating American narratives about American people—while critiquing it at the same time.” The artist’s work also recalls the United States’ long history of segregation laws, which restricted Black people from accessing beaches and other public gathering places.

One seaside portrait in the show depicts George Washington, who sits in a chair framed by a calm ocean sunset and military vessels in the distance. Famed portraitist Gilbert Stuart painted the work in 1797 as a gift for Alexander Hamilton, who served as Secretary of the Treasury under the first president.

Other featured selections, such as the panoramic oceanside scenes of one of the U.S.’ first maritime painters, Michele Felice Cornè, helped define the genre for decades.

Throughout the exhibition, notes Bailly in the statement, curators “[analyze] the colonial and Eurocentric origins of American marine painting,” which developed hand-in-hand with the rise of foreign commercial trade and European colonization of the Americas, the African continent and many other parts of the world.

Bailly adds, “When we think of marine painting we may think of high-seas realism and faithful portraits of ships but, as this exhibition attests, in practice we see broad-ranging expressions of American ambition, opportunity and invention.” 

In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting” is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, through October 3. The exhibition will travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from November 6 to January 31, 2022.

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