Chicago, Water, and the History of Seascapes
As October begins, Chicago boat owners scramble to remove their boats from the city’s many harbors, returning their vessels to storage for the winter. This annual occurrence happens slowly and methodically, each bare mast disappearing just as leaves fall unnoticed from the trees. This loss of scenery along the lake shore is bittersweet and becomes just one more reminder of the impending winter months. Even though Chicago is on a large freshwater lake the city is very in tune with the water. It is a border, a site of recreation and a means for reflection. Human beings have always had an intimate relationship with the water, making it no surprise that seascape paintings have such an important place in the history of art.
"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai
"The Raft of Medusa" by Theodore Gericault
Seascapes, or marine paintings, have a long history in both the Eastern and Western worlds. Considering the amount of the earth’s surface that is covered in water and the often unpredictable and life-changing nature of the sea, it is no wonder it has been such a popular artistic subject for so long. Paintings such as “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and “The Raft of the Medusa” by French artist Theodore Gericault both communicate the sheer savageness of the sea and have left an indelible mark on the public imagination. Paintings incorporating marine scenery such as JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship” and Pieter Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” speak to the sheer vastness of the sea as each depicts figures falling unnoticed into the water, far beyond salvation.
"The Slave Ship" by JMW Turner
The history of marine paintings spans all the way back to depictions of Egyptian funerary barges and persists to the present day. Biblical narratives of the Saints’ encounters with storms and sea monsters propelled the theme into the Medieval and Early Modern eras, and the rise of exploration and later nationalism meant that marine paintings became symbols of stately power as well as spiritual trial. Dutch and English artists of the early modern eras depicted great fleets of ships engaged in battle or on display en masse. The nature of their national naval strengths dictated that the ships be represented both for the public and for the glory of their leaders and heroes. The expressive nature of water and the fragile man resigned to the sea’s will never escaped the artist’s imagination, and every new art movement offered new visual representations of this relationship. Expressionists, Impressionists and even Surrealists refashioned this timeless genre for their own means. If there is one thing a Chicagoan can understand it is the artistic preoccupation with this seemingly endless and inexhaustible natural frontier.
Marine Paintings at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
Because so many people have a personal relationship with the subject, marine paintings are as popular as ever with collectors. MIR Appraisal Services houses many fine examples of this genre, spanning artistic styles and subjects. One such painting, from the 19th century and of unknown authorship, depicts a small open wooden boat complete with one coral sail. The painting evokes the simple relationship centuries of fishermen have had with water but is somewhat haunting because the boat is empty. Producing more questions than answers, it may summon Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” or tales of ghost ships and missing sailors.
"Fishing Boats" by Milne Ramsey
Milne Ramsey’s “Fishing Boats” is unique for its impressionistic style and miniature size. Evoking a darker JMW Turner painting, it measures only five by eight inches, making it one of the smallest oil paintings in MIR’s collection. This size only serves to enhance its impact on the viewer, who is inevitably drawn to the silvery sky, unusual patterns of reflection on the water and the solitary hull on the horizon.
A seascape by George Stanfield Walters
Finally, a watercolor by the British artist George Stanfield Walters relates to the contemporary viewer the active nature of sea travel, especially during previous centuries. International waterways remain a vital link for commerce, but this was never more true than before the dawn of the airplane, which eventually put an end to water’s monopoly on intercontinental travel. This small watercolor depicts a simple sailboat in the foreground with a busy sea behind it. Barely visible at a distance, the horizon is teeming with sailboats of varying sizes and complete with a billow of smoke from a steamship.
If you would like to take a closer look at this painting or any other in MIR’s collection feel free to call and schedule an appointment.
MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Cordingly, David. “Marine Painting,” in Oxford Art Online.
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