Ocean Painting: Artists Paint the Changing Moods of the Sea

In the Waves at Kakuda by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

It is difficult not to feel stirred by the grandeur of ocean painting. The vastness of ocean expands your horizon. Its calm face soothes your mind. The crashing of the waves sets your pulses racing. And, the artists who faithfully paint the many moods of the sea never fail to earn your appreciation.

Ever wondered, why you feel so moved by seeing an ocean painting?

We will never know for sure, but we can make a guess. The profundity of the sea reflects the depth of your soul. Its relentless flow is akin to the stream of thoughts you possess within yourself. It is apt to quote the famous words of poet Heinrich Heine in this regard,

My heart altogether resembles the sea; it has its storms, its ebbs and floods, and far down in its quiet depths rests many a shining pearl.

If the fervent display on the canvas is any indication, it is safe to say that the seascape painters share your enthusiasm about the intrigues of the deep dark ocean.

Birth and Perpetuation of Ocean Painting

Ocean and oceanic voyages are popular subjects of art. We find the earliest examples of oceanic subjects in the Egyptian pottery, Assyrian reliefs, Chinese porcelain and mosaic art such as those seen in Dougga, Tunisia.

In early 15th century, maritime subjects started to appear in European paintings. Artists like Jan van Eyck and Vittore Carpaccio made an early attempt to paint the sea on wood or canvas. But none of these was anywhere to similar to those we have come to know as an ocean painting today.

The story of eastern painting is slightly different. We see fine examples of seascape paintings in the scrolls of China as early as 12th century. Buddhist monk Muqi Fachang is renowned for his landscape and seascape paintings today.

Sunrise and The Sea by Claude Monet
Sunrise and The Sea by Claude Monet

Artists of Japan used their highly evolved brush skills to decode the mystery of the ocean. ‘Legends of the Kegon Sect’ (13th century) is one of the early examples of Japanese ocean painting based on the lore of an earlier time.

Ocean Painting & Its Transformation in Europe

Since late 15th century, European adventurers, merchants and other seafaring souls started to follow the various sea routes extensively. They wanted to explore the globe and their efforts started opening up the ports of Europe in a major way.

The horizon no longer remained so distant for them. Yet, there were perils. Natural threats apart, warring nations started to fight for their rights on the sea. In the maritime paintings of 16th and 17th century, we see a prominent display of naval battles.

This theme is most prominent in the Dutch paintings of the time. Being a wealthy trading nation, the Netherlands were frequently in conflict with the other nations. Maritime paintings like these became a significant genre in the Dutch Golden Age Painting.

From this point on, ocean painting became more varied in nature. Artists no longer used the ocean to solely paint the wartime tumults. But seascapes became a meaningful vehicle of expression for a variety of sentiments.

The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky
The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky

The inner thoughts of an artist’s mind were often revealed through these paintings. We see a continuation of this trend to the modern time.

Symbolism of Seascape Paintings

It is not uncommon to find seascape paintings rich with symbolism. Seascape is often associated with personal transformations. The dream of a rough sea, which is indicative of a turbulent time, or a serene one often has immense bearing on the mind of a dreamer. In our old scriptures, we often see the recurrent use of themes related to a sea, such as Eight Daoist Immortals Crossing the Sea or Moses Crossing the Sea.

Most Famous Ocean Paintings and the Artists who Painted them

Jacob van Ruisdael is one of the earliest seascape painters. His artworks like The Windmill of Wijk bij Duurstede (1670) and The Shore at Egmond aan Zee (1675) were among the very first ocean paintings that represent sea as a key subject.

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) is responsible for painting some of the most dramatic seascape paintings of all time. He is one of the most noteworthy figures of the romantic period. A number of his paintings like The Bay of Naples (1841), Hurricane at the Sea (1850), Tempest by Sounion (1856) and Rainbow (1873) show the ocean in its many moods. But The Ninth Wave, painted in 1850, remains his most famous ocean painting to this date.

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was captivated by the changing face of the ocean. Unlike other seascape painters of the romantic era, his nautical art is not essentially dramatic, but more contemplative in nature. As if he is subtly expressing his own brooding thoughts on canvas.

The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich
The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich

Fog (1807), The Sea of Ice (1824), Moonrise by the Sea (circa 1822) and Coast Scene (1830) are some of his most famous nautical paintings. On board of a Sailing Ship (circa 1820) is renowned for his photographic treatment of the subject. However, today’s viewers find themselves most intrigued by the sight of The Monk by the Sea (1808 – 1810).

JMW Turner

JMW Turner (1775 – 1851) was a contemporary of Caspar David Friedrich. Like his illustrious compatriot from Germany, Turner’s brushes were extremely sensitive to the tumults of the sea. His paintings such as the Fishermen at Sea (1796), The Shipwreck (1805), Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) and Peace – Burial at Sea (1842) show the raging ocean in all its majesty. Interestingly, this last painting was painted in the memory of the Scottish painter David Wilkie (1785 – 1841).

Andreas Achenbach & His Brother Oswald Achenbach

Andreas Achenbach (1815 – 1910) was born into a family of brewers. He and his brother, Oswald Achenbach (1827 – 1905), started capturing the mute eloquence of nature since an early age. The brothers are well known for their landscape and nautical paintings.

Andreas Achenbach did a number of pictures in a romantic style. Some of his most famous ocean paintings include Clearing Up, Coast of Sicily (1847), Boats in a Stormy Sea (1885), Incoming Steamer on Roaring Sea (1888) and A Moored Steamer at a Busy Quay (1890).

Clearing Up, Coast of Sicily by Andreas Achenbach
Clearing Up, Coast of Sicily by Andreas Achenbach

Oswald Achenbach is well known for a series of works on the Bay of Naples like The Bay of Naples by Moonlight and The Bay of Naples at Night, The Vesuvius in the Background.

Peder Severin Krøyer

For his work, Peder Severin Krøyer (1851 – 1909) or PS Krøyer received a cult status in Denmark. He was one of the most prominent of the Skagen Painters. PS Krøyer’s art was greatly influenced by the works of and his friendship with the impressionist painters like Édouard Manet, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

His seascape paintings are serene. He expressed his delight about painting the sea saying, ‘When the soft moonlight shines over the beach, I am there – immediately – with my sketchbook …’

Summer Evening on Skagen Beach by PS Krøyer
Summer Evening on Skagen Beach by PS Krøyer

Eugène Boudin

Eugène Boudin (1824 – 1898) was one of the foremost of the plein air painters. As a child, Boudin spent much of his time on a boat sailing to Le Havre or Honfleur. He retained his childhood impressions of the ebb and tides of the ocean which later became a dominant subject of his paintings.

His maritime paintings are varied in nature. While some paintings like the Seascape with Large Sky (1860) are tranquil and introspective, Shore at Low Tide, Rainy Weather (1895) is dark and ominous.

During the final years of his life, Eugène Boudin’s failing health prevented him from undertaking the rigours of painting outdoors on a daily basis. He moved to the northwest of France so that he could watch Channel water during the final hours of his life.

Claude Monet

Impressionist painters have always enjoyed a close bond with nature. It was impossible for them to be deaf to ‘the echo of the whole sea’s speech.’ The nautical paintings of Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) linger in your mind long after you have come face to face with one of them.

His paintings like the Seascape, Night Effect (1866), Sunrise, The Sea (1873) and the sun-soaked Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867) touch the deepest chord of your heart.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) was equally charmed by the changing colours of the ocean. He aptly painted the dancing of the waves in his Seascape near Berneval (1879), Sunset at Sea (1879) and View at Guernsey (1883) among others.

Seascape near Berneval by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Seascape near Berneval by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Winslow Homer

On the other side of the Atlantic, Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910) was responsible for painting some of the most eloquent maritime paintings. The crashing of the waves reverberates through his artworks like the Northeaster (1885), The Fog Warning (1885), Cannon Rock (1895) and Maine Coast (1896).

Childe Hassam

Fellow artist and impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935) has captured the varying tones of the deep sea in his works. His nautical paintings like On the Brittany Coast (1889), Afterglow, Gloucester Harbour (1890) and The Isles of Shoals (1901) are bound to keep you captivated for long.

Seascape in Japanese Painting

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829 – 1832) is one of the most celebrated artworks of Hokusai (1760 – 1849). His maritime art, or more specifically the great wave, has moved many eminent artists like Claude Monet, Camile Claudel, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Debussy to the core.

Hokusai created a string of paintings and woodblock prints themed on ocean including the Ocean Waves, Kajikazawa in Kai Province and The Kazusa Sea Route. Other Japanese artists before and after Hokusai have also let their brushes capture the colours of a ‘deeper sea.’

The Great Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai
The Great Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai

Ogata Korin (1658 – 1716) painted Rough Waves on canvas (circa 1709). Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) created a number of ocean-themed woodblock prints like the Whirlpool at Naruto and Seashore in Taishu.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was not satisfied showing the images of the undulating sea. So he etched and painted a number of underwater images. In his woodblocks prints like Sharks and Stingrays, he showed life under the surface of the water in exquisite detail.

In his Four Seasons of the Sea (1940), Yokoyama Taikan (1868 – 1958) preserved the echo of the sea.

Ocean Painting in the Modern Era

So did the artists’ grow weary of painting the ocean after this time? Or, did the viewers’ grow tired of seeing them? Not at all! The artists of the modern time devoted themselves to survey the hidden depths of the sea. Their ocean paintings became permeated with the colours of their own psyche and, sometimes, the collective thoughts of the society.

This progression is vivid in two paintings of Salvador Dali, Moonlight Over the Bay, At Cadaques (circa 1920) and On the Seashore (1931). Rene Magritte’s The human condition (1935) and Meditation (1936) also deal with the seascape. But he chooses to show it in a very different light.

Contemporary painters continue to interpret the ebb and tide of the ocean and fascinate us with their nautical paintings. Don’t hesitate to let yourself be fully immersed in the grand view of the seascape.

Brent Cotton loves capturing the play of light on the gentle waves of the river. He anchors his boat midstream and continues to paint for hours. From where did he find inspirations to paint the river? How does he capture its beauty on canvas? Find out an answer to these and many other questions about the artist’s life in this interview.