‘Meditation by the Sea’: Thoughts on a mindful painting

by | Apr 9, 2023 | Maritime Art, Culture and History, Nature and the Environment, Philosophy

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Click on image for a larger view.

It may not be dramatic like J.M.W. Turner’s famous Fighting Temeraire, but ‘Meditation by the Sea’ (pictured above) is my favourite marine painting. As a writer and observer of the shipping world, I can identify with this work. I even see myself in it.

‘Meditation by the Sea’ was done by an unidentified American artist from the early 1860s. It is usually categorised as “folk art”, a term that is rather loose and does not reflect the painting’s nuanced statement about the sea, nature and life.

Mindful art

A bearded man in black is gazing out to the sea in deep thought. Despite the onrushing waves, he remains stolid like the huge rock next to him. The image of stillness and solitude calls to mind a Buddhist monk in meditation, and it is reinforced by the two small figures seen in the distance on the beach.

The sea is rendered in shades of rich green, the colour of life. On the opposite side, a barren tree droops from the top of a cliff. It is symbolic of decay and death. Ebb tide is not just for the sea but for all living things. The artist’s peculiar use of perspective makes the man depicted appear puny and the sea foreboding. Life-sustaining, the sea is also powerful and its power needs to be respected.

In praise of silence

‘Meditation by the Sea’ lends itself to varying interpretations. In my view, the painting is an invitation to step back and look at the vicissitudes of life, its low and high tides, with a calm mind. It highlights the value of solitude and silence. Max Ehrmann, an American writer and lawyer, said it well in his iconic 1927 prose-poem ‘Desiderata’: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

~ Barista Uno

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