Six paintings of shipwrecks that will blow your mind

by | Feb 21, 2019 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

Shipwreck paintings captivate us for the same reason that tragedy as a form of drama enthralled the ancient Greeks: they arouse pity and fear. The following artworks are some of the best on the subject. Intense and moving like the plays of Sophocles, they are a testament to the power of the sea, the vagaries of fortune and the fragility of life.

Shipwreck, 1845
Knud Andreassen Baade (Norwegian, 1808–1879)

The seabird standing motionless atop a rock is reminiscent of the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem and its repeated proclamation of “Nevermore.” None of the ship’s crew has survived to tell tale. The scene is eerie and doleful in spite of the becalmed sea and a bright moon emerging from under the dark grey clouds.

The Wave, 1889
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900)

Aivazovsky has created a terrifying watery hell in luminous tones of blue and grey. No sun nor moon bedecks the sky as in his other shipwreck paintings. The men cling desperately to their sinking ship, but they are trapped in a vast cauldron of doom and utter hopelessness.

Brennendes Schiff (Burning Ship), circa 1830
J. M. W. Turner (English, 1775–1851)

Using a limited watercolour palette, Turner evokes the horror of a vessel going up in flames. Smoke from the fore of the ship appears to harmonise with the billowing waves, portending the end for both ship and crew. It is a ghostly image that could well symbolise all the shipwrecks that the world has known and almost forgotten.

The Survivor, 1892
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817–1900)

The figure shown on the left calls to mind Ishmael, the only surviving crewmember of the whaling ship Pequod in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. A swathe of moonlight bathes the man and the area of the shipwreck as if to suggest that some divine intervention had saved him from a watery grave. Other viewers might be reminded of the biblical Ishmael, son of Abraham and Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and the archetype of the outcast and wanderer.

Saint Mark Rescuing a Saracen from Shipwreck, 1562–1566
Tintoretto (Italian, c. 1518–1594)

This is a magnificent portrayal of St. Mark saving a Saracen sailor who promised to convert to Christianity if he was delivered from a shipwreck. The miracle is narrated in the Golden Legend (Legenda aurea), a 13th-century book containing biographies of saints (read more about St. Mark and the Saracen’s conversion here). Even if one does not believe in saintly miracles, shipwrecks can be so deadly that every incident in which a sailor survives could be described as miraculous.

Shipwreck, 1850
Francis Danby (Irish, 1793–1861)

Some sailors cheat death like the crew shown escaping on a lifeboat in this painting. Employing shades of red and brown and energetic brushstrokes, the artist depicts nature’s fury and violence with consummate skill. Yet, he also offers the viewer a means of catharsis, a sense of hope and renewal.

~Barista Uno

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