The sea is complex and mysterious. Woman is not less so. French author Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) sought to fathom the depths of her nature in her 1949 book, ‘The Second Sex’ (French title: Le Deuxième Sexe) — a feminist tour de force that deals with the psychology of women and how they have been treated through the centuries. The following works of art also provide some insights into woman and her different facets. I hope you enjoy them as much as Simone de Beauvoir’s tome, which you can read here.
Fisherwoman with her son in Valencia, 1908
Joaquín Sorolla (Spanish, 1863 – 1923)
Image courtesy of Google Cultural Institute
Called the ‘Master of Light’ by the National Gallery in London, Joaquín Sorolla portrays in this charming work the nurturing side of woman. A mother carries her son protectively on a cold, windy afternoon, her dress billowing like the water behind them. The long shadow cast by the woman suggests that it is getting late and they need to head home. To add to the painting’s narrative appeal, the mother pauses and gazes towards the right of the canvas. Has she espied her husband in the distance?
The Watcher, Tynemouth, 1882
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Winslow Homer’s watercolour drawing dramatically conveys woman’s capacity to endure hardships. It is one of several works Homer created during his stay from 1881 to 1882 in the small fishing village of Cullercoats near the the city of Tynemouth. Click here for the Art Institute of Chicago’s wonderful annotation of this work.
La laitière (The milk girl), 1889
Albert Edelfelt (Finnish, 1854 – 1905)
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s via Wikimedia Commons
Albert Edelfelt’s painting gives the lie to the phrase “the weaker sex” (now considered offensive, thankfully). The girl’s taut arms and the way she grips the oar handles suggest physical strength as well as inner resolve. Women can be as strong and hard-working as men. The male chauvinists who think otherwise are deluded.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 18th century pirates
Engraving by Benjamin Cole (English 1695–1766), illustration (coloured) from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book, A General History of the Pyrates, from their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the Present Time
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Some feminists would probably admire Anne Bonny and Mary Read, although neither can be called a role model. Both women were notorious 18th-century pirates who defied the social norms of their time. A Smithsonian magazine article says Anne “spent most of her time drinking at local saloons and seducing pirates” and Mary was “aggressive and ruthless, always ready for a raid, and swore, well, like a drunken sailor”. Click here to read the Smithsonian article. For more about these two colourful women, download the Marine Café Blog monograph. Tale of Two Pirates: Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
Woman on the edge of the quay, 1910
Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881 – 1946)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This piece by the brooding symbolist artist, Léon Spilliaert, may well epitomise the situation of women, past and present. In a real sense, many women are living on the edge — desiring to meet the expectations of society whilst striving to establish their own identify as individuals. It is often a lonely battle, and maintaining one’s sense of balance can be a real challenge.
Two women running on the beach (The race), 1922
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 – 1973)
Image courtesy of Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia
This gouache-on-plywood drawing of two women running with abandon on the beach was made by Picasso during his neoclassical period (1919–1929). It calls to mind the words of the sculptress Rebecca Jeffrey in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl. Musing on her latest creation, Rebecca says:
“Yes, strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied; that is why I made her larger than the miserable, pinched-up woman of our day. Strength and beauty must go together. Don’t you think these broad shoulders can bear burdens without breaking down, these hands work well, these eyes see clearly, and these lips do something besides simper and gossip?”
It is an ideal many women continue to strive for.