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marine painting


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Historically, at least up to the late 19th century when the camera became generally available as an instrument of record, the overall volume of marine painting, of whatever country of origin, remains of great importance as a source of knowledge of shipbuilding and design, of sails and rigging, of ship decoration such as figureheads, and of the transitional age when iron superseded wood as the material of construction, and steam propulsion superseded sail as the means of propulsion. It is a record, too, of warfare at sea throughout the great sea campaigns of the 16th–18th centuries. Of this historical value it is possible to speak with great certainty; of the aesthetic value of marine painting in the overall field of art, and of its inspirational value in focusing the endeavour and activity of man in his conquest of the sea, there can hardly be less doubt.

Early Marine Painting.

The earliest known pictures of ships and boats are those which decorate Egyptian pottery of the period around 3200 bc. Wall paintings and reliefs of the two periods of Egyptian ascendancy, 2500–2300 bc and 1500–1085 bc, are often of such clarity and detail that contemporary methods of shipbuilding and rig are made clear. The methods and weapons employed in warfare at sea can be seen in a wall painting in the temple of Medinet Habu to the west of Thebes on the upper Nile. It depicts the victory of the Egyptian fleet of Rameses III (1198–1166 bc) over the combined fleets of sea-raiders from Crete, Cyprus, Philistia, and Libya.

Of the periods of Greek and Roman sea power, no true paintings exist beyond some pottery decoration. A Greek vase dating from 540 bc has a painting of a Greek merchant vessel being pursued by a pirate galley, and a carving in relief from the temple of Fortune at Praesneste shows one of the Roman warships at the battle of Actium in 31 bc. There are also, of course, the coloured representations of French ships of 1066 in the Bayeux Tapestry, which provide details of contemporary building and rig.

Renaissance Painting.

Representations of the sea and ships appear in many paintings of the early Renaissance. The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1444/5–1510); Volpe's painting of Henry VIII leaving Dover on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 in his great ship Henry Grâce à Dieu; and the equally well-known picture of Portuguese carracks by the Dutch painter Cornelis Anthonisz (c.1499–c.1560), all show the features and build of ships with great skill and attention. However, they all lack any verisimilitude in representing the sea around them. These famous pictures are in no way seascapes, but merely portraits of ships.

Dutch Marine Painters.

The true birth of marine painting, which can be taken as portraying the sea itself as well as the ships that sailed on it, occurred in Holland in the second half of the 16th century, coinciding with the rise to maritime power of the Dutch Republic, and the first Dutch painter to specialize in seascape as such was Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (1566–1640), who painted a picture of Dutch ships running into the port of Flushing in the teeth of a gale. It is his finest picture and shows a rare feeling for both ships battling against a high wind and the anger and force of a rough sea. It was the first true seascape in that it directly related the sea conditions with the behaviour of ships affected by them. Vroom, incidentally, is probably best known in Britain for his designs for the series of tapestries of the Spanish Armada which the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624), commissioned from him. Unfortunately, these tapestries were destroyed in a fire in the House of Lords in 1834, though they survive in the form of engravings made by John Pine (1699–1756).

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Subjects: Maritime History.


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