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Let’s face it. The ships of today can’t hold a candle to the splendour of the sailing vessels that used to roam the oceans. Certainly not the monstrous mega cruise ships or the dreary container ships often celebrated in the shipping world. Here’s a nostalgic look at the former beauties of the sea as portrayed by various artists.

Review of the Black Sea Fleet in 1849 (1886), by Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900) Courtesy of

In this stunning oil painting, Ivan Aivazovsky pays tribute to the might of the Imperial Russian Navy and the magnificence of sailing ships. By bunching the warships together, their masts and billowing sails slightly tilted under a radiant light, Aivazovsky evokes a sense of military power and patriotic pride.

Battle in the Chios Strait on June 24, 1770 (1848) by Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sailing ships in the days of yore looked resplendent in battle. In Aivazovsky’s painting, a Turkish and a Russian warship slug it out in a prelude to the famous Battle of Chesma (Çe?me), which took place during the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774) and saw the defeat of the Ottoman navy. Additional details about the painting can be found here.

A Ship on the High Seas Caught by a Squall, Known as ‘The Gust’ (c. 1680) by Willem van de Velde II (Dutch, 1611–1693) Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The sea has no respect even for beautiful sailing ships. Willem van de Velde II’s painting conjures the kind of terror that only hardened sailors know. Yet, there is something strangely beautiful about the way the ship depicted is struggling against the wind and the waves. One may be reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ with its powerful refrain: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Ships at Anchor (c. 1650–c. 1707) by Willem van de Velde II (Dutch, 1611–1693) Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A sailing ship at rest can look as enticing as Francisco de Goya’s La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja). Here, Dutch Golden Age painter Willem van de Velde II shows his masterful technique as well as the Dutch affinity with the sea.

Full-Rigged Clipper Ships (c. 1860) by unknown American artist Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Clipper ships hogged the maritime limelight in the mid-19th century because of their beauty, grace and speed. This work by an unknown artist may be categorised as “naive art” given its lack of sophistication in artistic technique. Even so, it is a charming expression of the appeal that clippers held when they were prima donnas of the sea.

Folding Screen with the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship (c. 1600 – c. 1625) by anonymous painter from the Edo-period (1600-1868) Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum has an interesting historical note on ths artwork: “The arrival of Portuguese ships in Nagasaki Harbour was quite an attraction in the early 17th century. This is what is taking place here, with the merchandise being unloaded at the left and the captain under a parasol at the right. Such screens were probably made for the Japanese merchant class, which made a fortune from the lucrative overseas trade with Portugal. They depict the foreign contacts in a nutshell for the Japanese spectator.”

Calligraphic Galleon (dated A.H. 1180/ A.D. 1766–67) by Turkish calligrapher ‘Abd al-Qadir Hisari Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The old sailing ships were veritable works of art. No wonder they captivated artists and calligraphers of the Islamic world. The MET’s annotation to this gorgeous piece is worth a read (click here).

Sailing Ship – off Coast of Maine (1876) by William E. Norton (American, 1843 – 1916)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Age of Sail may be no more, but sailing ships, like this one gloriously depicted by William E. Norton, will live on — so long as artworks abide and there are eyes that see.

~ Barista Uno

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