Vincent van Gogh painted waterside scenes with as much gusto as he did potato fields and orchards. No surprise there. The Dutch post-Impressionist master had great empathy for the poor folks whose work was related to water — the fisherman, the bargeman, the stevedore. But he also held a fascination for the sea as well as for rivers and canals. As the following oil paintings show, he saw water both as a means of sustenance for the working class and a source of calm for his troubled soul.
Greek mythology and the religion of ancient Greece have had a deeper impact on the shipping world than some people realise. The very word “ocean” can be traced back to the Greek Okeanos, the great river that flowed around the earth and was personified as Oceanus.
The gods and goddesses worshipped by the Hellenes have been memorialised in the names of such maritime companies as the UAE-basd Helios International FZC and Norway’s Poseidon Simulation AS. Some of the deities have even travelled the world, their names emblazoned on the hulls of ships. Here are some examples:
Australia is famous for the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, Great Barrier Reef, kangaroos and koalas, dairy products, wines, and many other things besides. It is less noted for marine art, at least compared with the UK and The Netherlands. This is unfortunate. Australia has a long history of marine art, and its contemporary artists are busy producing plenty of it. Here’s a serving that should prove quite filling:
Many folks who have fallen in love with The Wellerman (full title: ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’) call it a “sea shanty”. Even Scottish singer Nathan Evans, whose version went viral on TikTok in late 2020, has labelled it as such. They are sadly mistaken. The Wellerman is not a shanty but a 19th-century whaling ballad or folk song from New Zealand.
Why is it important to know this?
First, because it prevents us from making the same mistake many people make when they assume that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a sacred song or hymn. This highly popular song, which Cohen recorded in 1984, is actually about earthly, profane love that makes references to the Bible and has erotic connotations.
Seashells are beautiful in and of themselves. But humans are seldom content with nature. For thousands of years, they have been redesigning shells by painting them, making incisions and carvings, or adding some element such as as gold or silver frame. Whether driven by utilitarian, artistic or religious reasons, the act of altering such natural objects whilst preserving their form and structure allows humans to leave their imprint. Long after they are gone, memories of their life and times live on.
Millions of people must be familiar by now with ‘Wellerman’, the song which went viral on Tiktok in 2020. The Wellerman craze does not seem to have died down, so I thought I would share some marine art from where this 19th-century whaling song (no, it’s not a sea shanty) originated: New Zealand.
The following works, except the last one, are from the online collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. I trust that they will give the readers of Marine Café Blog an insight into the island country’s rich maritime heritage as well as its natural beauty.
“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” the American novelist and screenwriter, Truman Capote, once said. Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet may not have felt exactly the same about the fabled city. For sure, though, Venice had an exhilarating effect on these two key figures in the art movement called ‘Impressionism’. Both painters depicted its waters, palaces, cathedrals and sky in colours that continue to bedazzle viewers in the 21st century.
Why has Venice fascinated so many artists through the centuries? The German art historian Gustav Pauli gave a straightforward answer in his 1904 book Venice: “Venice had always been one of the most picturesque cities of the world. What could have equalled in fantastic splendour the church of St. Mark, the Doges’ Palce, and their surroundings? — And again was it possible to imagine more delightful street-views, than were offered at every step by the narrow network of canals and streets?”
The world of 19th-century art was not exactly kind to women artists. In Europe especially, women were denied entry to art academies. Their works were often shunned by exhibition organisers. Early in her career, Austrian painter Lea von Littrow signed her works “Leo von Littrow” just so they could be exhibited. Despite the pervasive gender discrimination, a number of female artists managed to thrive and even gain celebrity status because of their grit and talent.
The sea is the star of the show, so to speak, in a seascape painting. However, the area of the artwork that shows the sky and the clouds in particular is just as important. For the viewer not to give these elements enough attention is to do the painting and its creator a huge disservice.
Based on their shapes and colours, clouds indicate the atmospheric condiitions under which the sea moves and changes its appearance. They also serve as a kind of time stamp on the scene depicted. More importantly, from the aesthetic perspective, clouds and the rest of the sky contribute to the atmosphere of the work — that is, its pervading tone or mood.
Some people understandably don’t like rainy weather. Rains can snarl up traffic, restrict movement and put one in a surly mood. Worse, they may trigger floods and cause havoc all around. Yet, as the following artworks reveal, there is something beautiful and even marvellous about the rain.
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem First Things First. This is such an obvious truth that one wonders why the seas are strewn with tonnes of plastic waste and rivers are polluted till they become dark and ugly. The following song and works of art are a tribute to life-giving andl life-sustaining water. They are a reminder as well that water is a precious resource that ought not to be taken for granted.