I know very little about ballet, and I have never been to a ballet performance. However, sailboats make me think automatically of ballerinas — like the ones depicted by the great French artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in his 1885 painting Ballet Dancers (pictured above). As with Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, sailboats at sea epitomise grace. More significantly, they evoke that inner sense of freedom humans yearn for. All six of the following paintings represent a kind of choreography as wonderful as any that could be witnessed on stage.

En la costa de Valencia, 1898
Joaquín Sorolla (Spanish, 1863–1923) / Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina

Joaquín Sorolla has been called the Spanish master of light, and rightly so. This iridescent painting is typical of the many he painted depicting the sunny beaches of his native Valencia. Sorolla renders sunlight as though it was liquid bathing the sails and figures with a joyful glow. Even the shadows have a certain luminosity. Adding a bit of charm to the scene is the small boy in the foreground playing with a toy sailboat.

La Vague Verte (The Green Wave), ca. 1866–67
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The amplitude of the sea in Monet’s work is underscored by the high horizon line and the silhouette of a sailing ship in the distance. The undulating carpet of green looks heavy and light at the same time. The boat in the foreground is moving in rhythm with the waves, suggesting a dynamic harmony between man and nature.

Seascape with Sailboats, 1925
Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881–1946) / The Athenaeum

Léon Spilliaert was a Belgian symbolist painter best known for his mysterious and often melancholic works. In this piece, executed in watercolour and gouache on paper, he deconstructed reality to make a subtle statement on the human condition. Sand, sea and sky are demarcated by strips of colour which create a sense of fluid movement. The two sailboats are some distance from each other and seem to float in a surreal landscape. The image is emblematic of the unbridgeable space that separates humans. One is reminded of the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

Two Black Boats Sailing up Dark Grey Waves
Alfred Wallis (English, 1855–1942) / New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman and self-taught artist, depicts two fishing boats wrestling with a mighty swell in a small seascape measuring 17.8 x 23.8 cm (7 x 9.4 inches). The subdued tones of black and brown and the sombre card background make for a stark drama at sea. The painting is childlike yet compelling.

The Full Moon over a Sailing Boat at Sea, c.1823–6
Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851) / Photo © Tate
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Art critics often use the word “atmospheric” to describe the works of J.M.W. Turner. In this instance, poetic might be a better term. The splashes of blue-green and ochre conjure up a dreamscape, beautiful yet surreal. The moon is just bright enough to show the outline of a sailboat. The edges of the  sheet are noticeably jagged as though the paper had been torn on the sides — giving the impression of some lost artefact or a fragment from the artist’s memory.

Seascape at Saintes-Maries, 1888
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) / Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

With its vibrant colours and use of vigorous brushstrokes, this seascape is immediately recognisable as the work of none other than Vincent van Gogh. It is one of several paintings the artist made during a trip to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. The energy is palpable. One can tell that Vincent was inspirited by the sea and the fishermen who struggled daily with its power. As he gushed in a letter to his brother, Theo: “I’m writing to you from Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean at last — the Mediterranean — has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later, its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue.”

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