Mind-blowing paintings of shipwrecks (a sequel)

by | Feb 9, 2023 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

I can’t get enough of art depicting shipwrecks. I am sure that many readers of Marine Café Blog feel the same way. So, as a sequel to an earlier post (‘Six paintings of shipwrecks that will blow your mind’), here are six more paintings on the subject with my annotations. They call to mind the words of the British Romantic poet, Lord Byron:

Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell—
Then shriek’d the timid, and stood still the brave,—
Then some leap’d overboard with fearful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave.

~ Lord Byron, from Don Juan

Shipwreck, 1844
Knud Baade (Norwegian, 1808–1879)
Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet
Image licence: Creative Commons – Attribution CC-BY)

In this striking painting, the wreck is set against a fiery sky with ominous dark rocks occupying the foregound and filling up most of the canvas. The wind-swept, tattered sail presents a poignant image. It is as though the ship was waving goodbye after it succumbed to the wrath of the sea and the power of Nature.

Moonlit Shipwreck at Sea, 1901
Edward Moran (American, 1829–1901)
Public domain

Not surprisingly, Moran’s painting fetched USD 948,500 in a 2018 Christie’s auction — more than twice the estimate of USD 250,000–350,000. The interplay of light and dark is impressive  and the brushstrokes masterful. The ill-fated ship is still afloat, but it is at the bottom of the canvas. This conveys a sense of utter isolation and doom, which is reinforced by the giant waves swirling around and the small white moon in the distance. The two seagulls hovering over the wreck serve to punctuate the terror of it all.

Shipwreck, 1858
Edward Moran (American, 1829–1901)
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art sums up the appeal of this painting:“Strong contrasts of light and dark, a swirling merger of sea and sky, and a convincing grasp of natural detail contribute to a sensational effect of chaos and danger in this early work.” However, one has to zoom in on the centre of the canvas to feel the unfolding human drama. Here’s a detail of the painting that shows Moran’s skillful depiction of the dramatic rescue:

Click here to view the whole painting with zoom option.

The Shipwreck on Northern Sea, 1875
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

No turbulence here as one usually finds in Aivazovsy’s shipwreck paintings. There is, instead, an eerie sort of calm. The moon casts an unearthly light on the wreck survivors huddled together on the shore. In the only perceptible human movement in the painting, two men are dragging something out of the water with a rope. Surviving a shipwreck is like waking up from a nightmare. A ghostly flotilla in the background drives home the point.

Shipwrecked on a Beach (The Tempest), c. 1822–23
Théodore Géricault (French, 1791–1824)
Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

This work by French Romantic artist Théodore Géricault is one of those paintings that demand a careful look, not a cursory one. Two sailors are climbing up a rocky shore after a shipwreck. One is shown towards the left of the canvas with his torn shirt exposing his upper body. Behind him, head barely noticeable, is another sailor trying to get to safety. The predominant use of dark brown and dark green make for a very gloomy scene.

Das Eismeer (Sea of Ice), 1823-24
Caspar David Friedrich (Greifswald 1774 – 1840 Dresden)
Courtesy of Hamburger Kunsthalle
© Hamburger Kunsthalle / Photo: Elke Walford
Shared by Marine Café Blog under the Fair Use principle

Pieces of an ice floe are piled up in a pyramid-like heap with only part of the shipwreck in view to the right of the canvas. They are grim reminders of a cataclysmic event. The scene is bathed with the glow of a wintry sun, which contributes to the spooky atmosphere.

~ Barista Uno

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