Heroic spirits: five select paintings of fishermen at sea

by | Oct 23, 2019 | Art

Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has been universally praised since its publication in 1952. A review which came out that year in The New York Times said of the short novel:

The excitement and tension of the old man’s adventure, the magnificence of the great marlin and the beauty of days and nights alone on the Gulf Stream are all well conveyed in “The Old Man and the Sea.” Mr. Hemingway has always excelled in describing physical adventure and the emotional atmosphere of it. And many of his stories have glorified courage in the face of danger. 

I must confess that I do not share the same enthusiasm over Hemingway’s fish tale. It will take a whole article to explain why. For now, I will just say that I find his story of an ageing fisherman struggling to catch a giant marlin a bit humdrum. It does not move me. Some paintings of fishermen at sea are much more stimulating, like home-brewed coffee. The following are five such works:

The Toilers of the Sea, 1873
Édouard Manet (1832–1883) / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, via Gandalf’s Gallery

In Manet’s painting, the three fishermen are rendered in shades of brown as are their boat and its sails. It is the colour of the soil, drab and lacking vividness, which contrasts beautifully with the sea and sky. The men may be toilers of the sea, but they are gente de la tierra — people of the earth, land creatures who have to struggle against the sea. In this instance, however, they look relaxed. They have caught some fish and are homeward bound.

Fishermen at Sea, 1796
J. W. M. Turner (1775–1851) / Tate Britain via the Google Art Project

The English Romantic painter J. W. M. Turner has created a wonderful study in contrasts. The moon is framed by dark clouds and seems frozen in the sky. The sense of stillness is accentuated by a thin strip of ight and the silhouettes of sailing ships in the middle of the canvas. Juxtaposed with the beautiful night sky is a rough sea. The lamp in one of the fishing boats looks puny compared with the moon. It is a poignant reminder that nature is greater and more powerful than man.

Fishermen at Sea, circa 1913
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937) / Smithsonian American Art Museum

The boat in Tanner’s painting is tilted to the left at an 80 degree angle. Its almost perpendicular position bolsters the sense of instability and struggle. Interestingly, the top view of the boat shows some fishermen but they are hardly visible. They are reduced to dabs of paint, which subtly conveys the idea of man’s insignificance against the vastness of the sea and nature.

The Toilers of the Sea, ca. 1880–85
Albert Pinkham Ryder (American, 1847–1917)) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Done in oil on wood, Ryder’s work has a child-like, whimsical quality. However, the dark tones in this monochrome painting add an element of mystery. As in the case of Tanner’s Fishermen at Sea, the boat is tilted to the left but it seems to dance with the waves with a full moon guiding it like a ballet instructor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an interesting annotation, which can be read here.

Kissing the Moon, 1904
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910) / Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, via Wikimedia

This piece illustrates what the Encyclopedia Britannica says about Winslow Homer’s art: his “works, particularly those on marine subjects, are among the most powerful and expressive of late 19th-century American art.” The three fishermen seem to be on the verge of being swallowed by the waves. Yet, they are admirably composed. Their postures show no fear or apprehension. It is a beautiful evening out at sea, and they are in harmony with their environment.

~ Barista Uno


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