Life and death drama: sea rescues in art

by | Jul 5, 2019 | Marine Accidents and Safety, Maritime Art, Culture and History


In a previous article, I shared some works of art to highlight the noble tradition of saving lives at sea. I felt that that was too meagre a serving for such a great topic. So here’s a sequel. I trust that those who love art will find it as flavourful as the one preceding it, if not more so.

The Wrath of the Seas, 1886
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900) / Wikimedia Commons

The sea often wears the terrifying mask of Death. However, in this painting Russian marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky has transformed the terror into something beautiful, even sublime. The boatload of shipwrecked people are desperately trying to reach the shore, but whether they would make it is uncertain. Aivazovsky keeps the viewer in suspense and terrifed.

A Ship at Sea, mid-17th–early 18th century
Ludolf Backhuysen (Dutch, 1630–1708) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ludolf Backhuysen’s drawing of a sinking ship graphically illustrates the meaning of the common expression “for dear life”. The members of the crew can be seen holding on to stay alive as a small boat sails by in the distance. One can almost hear the doomed men crying for help or praying to the Almighty.

The Lifeboat, 1874
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900) / The Athenaeum

Sea rescuers are stout-hearted. Their heroism amidst a storm at sea can be described as epic. Aivazovsky pays tribute to this special breed of men in a painting that is unforgettable for its haunting atmosphere.

William and Grace Darling Going to the Rescue of the SS ‘Forfarshire’, 1838 (?)
Henry Perlee Parker (1795–1873) / RNLI Grace Darling Museum
Published in Marine Café Blog under CC BY-NC 4.0 licence

Grace Darling, shown in this painting with her father, William Darling, is known for her role in rescuing the survivors of the 1838 Forfarshire shipwreck. This lighthouse keeper’s daughter died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. She had never married and had no children. Yet, she left behind a legacy women all over the world can treasure. For more about this legendary figure, visit the Grace Darling Website.

Shipwreck of the Apostle Paul at Malta, 1712
Jan Luyken, printmaker / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The upside of marine disasters is that they can — and often do — bring out the best in people: compassion, courage and sense of community. The Bible (Acts 28:1-10) recounts how the natives of the island of Malta showed Paul the Apostle and his companions “unusual kindness” after they were shipwrecked. The islanders’ spirit continues to live on amongst all those who rescue people at sea.

A Crew Rescued, 1894
Michael Peter Ancher (Danish, 1849–1927) / The Athenaeum

To criminalise ship captains who save lives at sea, as one witnesses in present-day Europe, is to subvert the maritime world’s noblest tradition. Sea rescuers, including fishermen, are heroes even more than soldiers who kill during war. For they help reduce human suffering whilst the latter compound it by so many degrees.

The drowned boy is brought ashore, 1913
Laurits Tuxen (Danish, 1853–1927) / Wikimedia Commons

The sight of a person who has drowned can tug at the hearts of even the most seasoned of rescuers. In this business of saving lives at sea, one can never really be indifferent.

The lifeboat is driven through the dunes, 1883
Michael Peter Ancher (Danish, 1849–1927) / Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark)

A throng of fishermen is going down to the coast with a lifeboat which is pulled by some horses. One may be reminded of a religious procession. In lieu of the statue of a saint, the centrepiece of Michael Ancher’s work is a lifeboat. The latter can be seen as a symbol of redemption in the same manner that saints are believed to help in the redemption of men’s souls. The snow blanketing the dunes, the dark blue-grey sky, and the fishermen’s drab clothes all make for a sombre atmosphere.

Did you like this article?  Buy me a coffee

Let us know what you think of this article

Don't Miss the Brew!

Sign up to be notified of updates to Marine Cafe Blog

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest