Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Wave

Crashing waves by Winslow Homer, c. 1900
Though he was a master at depicting the stormy Maine coast, Winslow Homer was far from the first to seize upon crashing ocean waves as a subject for painting. 

Most conspicuous among his forbears in the "Crash! Boom! Bang!" genre is Gustave Courbet, the French painter credited with leading the Realist movement in mid-19th-century France. 

Waves by Gustave Courbet, c. 1870

Courbet himself encountered the motif in Japanese prints, the newly widespread availability of which was hugely influential in the development of Western painting.

Gustave Courbet, The Wave, 1869

From about 1869 on, Courbet painted numerous versions of vigorously breaking waves employing a similar close-up-viewpoint, composition, and handling while painting on the Normandy coast. The following from Scotland’s National Gallery summarizes the series:

“Courbet was fascinated by the power of the sea. He spent the summer of 1869 at Etretat on the Normandy coast and painted several pictures of waves breaking on the shore. The small scale of his canvas did not inhibit his ability to convey the vast expanse of stormy sky and sea. Courbet applied paint thickly using vigorous brush and palette knife strokes which complement the forceful surge of the wave. The motif of the single wave was inspired by Japanese color prints which were widely available in Paris in the 1860s.”- National Gallery, Scotland. 

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, colored woodblock print, 1829-1830

Many connoisseurs of painting consider Frederick Judd Waugh the American master of the motif. Waugh composed spectacular and beautiful renditions of the rocky shore.
An annoyingly awesome and beautiful seascape by Frederick Waugh

A blog over here neatly presents Waugh's advice and admonitions about painting the sea. But Waugh's paintings usually don't have the kind of dire and glowering existential overtones that Homer's do. In the latter's marines, you feel really at the mercy of larger forces.

Yet Another Incredible Seascape by Frederick Waugh.
In Waugh's you just stand back with your mouth hanging open and realize there's not much point anymore in painting lovingly realistic seascapes that celebrate the Romantic force and beauty of the rocky shore. Really, what else is left to say? 

So you move on. 

Liu Guosong, Chinese, b. 1931, High Landscape II, 20th century, Hanging scroll, ink on paper, Image: 130.81 x 75.88 cm


  1. I visited the Homer show in Portland the other day, and was particulary struck by his "High Cliff, Coast of Maine". Some investigation led me to the Smithsonian American Art Museum site (the owners of the painting). In a small paragraph, Homer is quoted, referring to this painting. "Homer was despondent when the painting did not sell quickly, saying, 'I cannot do better than that. Why should I paint?' "

  2. I love your art informative. Now I must research more paintings by Frederick Waugh. Am reminded once again of why I fear taking up a brush...

  3. There'll always be something new to say and one should never fear the brush. Artists like Waugh are great because they know their song and sing it well. It's only intimidating to imagine one should be singing the same song but in reality the true task is to find one's own.

    Sadly, as Homer's frustration attests, finding it and singing it isn't magically fulfilling in its own right. There's so much more to the story.

  4. Even Hokusai said on his deathbed of old age after decades of successful and immortal art making "Ah if I only had ten more years - then I might actually be able to paint something."