Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Ponds

Fig. 10. Banks of the Seine at Bougival or Quay Sganzin by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), 1904. Signed "deVlaminck" at lower right. Oil on canvas, 28 by 36 inches. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

When we enter the light of history, however, water abounds in two-di­mensional art. This too is understand­able, given the Mediterranean orientation of art from around 1500 bc to around ad 500. The art­ists of Egypt frequently depicted the Nile, with its ibises and hippos and bulrushes, while Cretan painters showed an equally vivid interest in the life of the Aegean, a focus that continued in mainland Greece and throughout the Roman Empire down to the end of antiquity.

But with the emergence of the Middle Ages, the magnetic poles of art reversed themselves once again, as humanity-at least in the West-turned away from the sea and back to the hinterland. Other than the occasional depictions of Jonah and the whale and Saint Peter, the fisherman, or some rendering of a baptism, water was banished from visual art until the beginning of modern times. The various typologies of medieval Christian art had little occasion for landscapes in general, and so, little occasion for seascapes either.

That focus began to shift only in the Renaissance. What can fairly lay claim to being the first modern landscape painting of any kind, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by the great Swabian artist Kon­rad Witz (1444, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Ge­neva), is also the first seascape: a stunningly real­istic depiction of Lake Geneva reconceived as the Sea of Galilee. And yet, notwithstanding a few Venetian exceptions in the next century, Witz's masterpiece was both the first and the last impor­tant seascape before the emergence of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. That is the point at which the genre begins in earnest and also the point at which MMAM picks up the tale.

As is evident in the earliest painting at MMAM, the seascape by Simon Jacobsz de Vlieger, water is perhaps the most challenging element to depict in two dimensions. Whereas land is at once static and richly varied, the essence of the sea is its ceaseless movement, as well as the fact that it is fundamentally of a piece. The artist, then, must exert all his skill to invest his subject with variety and interest. Vlieger achieves these goals by setting a three-masted galleon in the middle ground on the left, a scattering of smaller craft in the background on the right, and a rowboat, enveloped in shadow, in the central foreground. All of that, however, is merely incidental to his real ambition, to depict the roiling green waters that shimmer in the irregular sunlight, as well as the glorious cloud-cathedrals that expand across the sky.

This painting-or at least the Dutch genre to which it belongs-is essential to the evolution of most of the works in MMAM's collection. Seascapes, like landscapes, emerged as discreet genres during the baroque period. Although actually invented in Italy, landscapes and seascapes were first embraced in Holland, perhaps the greatest seaborne empire of the age. In the centuries that followed, seascapes would figure prominently in the art of Italy, France, England, and the United States, but they would take their cue from that Dutch precedent.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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