The world of fishermen: Great 19th-century paintings

by | Jan 25, 2019 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

The slogan-loving officials of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) should exorcise the term “invisible seafarers”. The phrase was coined by some second-rate copywriter to add drama to the ‘Day of the Seafarer’ celebration in 2013. It sounds contrived, a moronic myth repeated by those who pretend to care about merchant mariners. The sea workers who are invisible — figuratively speaking — are those who catch fish for a living. Thankfully, there are great paintings from the 19th century to remind us of their existence and cast light on their daily struggles and aspirations. Here are 10 of the very best of such artworks.

Fishing Boats Becalmed off le Havre, undated
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851)

The fishermen and their boats are apparitions in a dreamy landscape. It is a beautiful but hazy day, and there is only a hint of the men’s hard labour. Then as now, fishermen are the invisible ones, not merchant sailors.

Fishermen Hauling the Net on Skagen’s North Beach, 1883
Peder Severin Kroyer (Norwegian, 1851 – 1909)

One can almost hear the grunts of these fishermen as they heave the net to shore. Note the fish leaping inside the net and the two men who are barefoot in contrast to their companions. Such attention to detail gives this painting its evocative power and charm.

Fishermen on Skagens Beach, 1883
Peder Severin Kroyer (Norwegian, 1851 – 1909)

Seven fishermen are shown relaxing on the beach, two of them catching up on some sleep. The sense of repose is reinforced by a calm sea. Did they fail to catch any fish and are waiting to sail out again? Kroyer’s painting invites a narrative that is up for the viewer to weave.

Departure of the Herring Fleet, 1866
Andreas Achenbach (German, 1815–1910)

Families gather on the beach to bid farewell to fishermen as they set out to sea. It is a clear, sunny day. However, the atmosphere is not celebratory. There are no hands waving, no cheering. The women in white bonnets stand close to each other, just watching the ships.

Fisherwomen of Kerhor, 1870
Eugène-Louis Boudin (French, 1824 – 1898)

The canvas is roughly divided into two sections: on the left side, the bonneted women with their fishing gear and, on the right, some boats on still water. It is a picturesque tableau showing a typical day in the life of fisher women.

Fisher Girl of Picardy, 1889
Elizabeth Nourse (American, 1859 – 1938)

With her bare feet firmly planted on the sand and carrying her fishing gear, the young woman looks out to sea as she holds a little boy by the hand. She represents, not only the strong and steadfast spirit of fisherfolk, but also the soft, nurturing side of all women who have to work to help feed their families.

The Fog Warning, 1885
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)

This iconic painting by Winslow Homer speaks volumes about the hardships and perils fishermen have to contend with daily. The fisherman has caught two large halibuts, but the fog is building up. He has to reach the mother ship in the distance before he is completelty enveloped by fog. It is an anxiety-filled moment as the dory pitches roughly, and the weight of the fish makes rowing more difficult.

Women Awaiting Fishing Boats on Berck Beach, 1880
Eugène-Louis Boudin (French, 1824 – 1898)

The dark figures huddled together on the beach contrast with the sunlit sky and sea. The faces of the women are obscured, and only their white bonnets stand out. The boats are still far off, which adds to the dramatic mood of the painting.

The Drowned Fisherman, 1896
Michael Peter Ancher (Danish, 1849 – 1927)

Ancher’s dramatic painting is reminiscent of 15th and 16th century artworks depicting the dead Christ (see Lodovico Carracci’s circa-1582 painting, The Lamentation). A palpable sadness fills the room, but the dead man’s family and fellow fishermen show admirable composure and restraint in their grief. There is a sense of fatalism born perhaps of the fact that fishermen are used to the power of the sea and the vicissitudes of fortune.

Fishing boat, 1878
Jacob Maris (Dutch, 1837–1899)

A fishing boat with two figures on board stands solitary on the shore secured by two ropes. Another man is hard at work on the beach as seagulls fly overhead hunting for food and some ships, barely visible on the horizon, are still out at sea. The scene wonderfully captures the rhythm of life that fishermen have embraced and kept in step with.

~Barista Uno

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