Friday, July 5, 2013


Charles H. Woodbury, Mid-Ocean, 1894. Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass.
This is Ogunquit, ME artist Charles Woodbury's "salon painting" and the one that made his name. I'm posting it because I promised to in a previous post - and also because it rocks. 

This painting is owned by the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass.'s public library. Woodbury painted studies for it right off the stern of a steamer that he took to Europe with his wife Marcia Oakes Woodbury a few years after they were married. 

The entire conception of this work was something new. Most marine paintings included some land or some ships; Woodbury suspends the viewer midpoint over the waves. He would use this compositional device many times over the course of his career. It allowed him to treat his theme in a more modern, abstract manner than his predecessors, who wouldn't have thought of composing the canvas with a freedom inherited from  Japanese woodblock design.

Woodbury was trained as a mechanical engineer, so he understood the physics of wave motion and water swell. "Don't just paint a thing, paint it doing something," he said. But it was the influence of French realism that allowed him to see past the romantic visions of the previous generation's Hudson River marine painters. It was Realism, Barbizon, and Impressionism that told him it was alright to paint just what a passenger aboard a modern steamship could see simply by leaning off the rail. 

And yet Woodbury was, at his best, a poet in paint as well; how else could one see to suggest the effervescent trace of human presence vanishing on the surface of the mighty forces and moods of the ocean as they have always been and will be forever more?


  1. Brilliant! Wish I hadn't missed your Woodbury talk in Ogunquit.

  2. That really nails the look and feel of the foam in a ship's wake. Very impressive painting!

  3. A masterful painting. Thank you for finding and sharing. It is a wonder that Woodbury is not better known.

  4. Next time, Annie! I'll be giving the presentation at the Kittery Art Association on August 1.

  5. Julie - yes, he repays attention, especially for his theories about artistic seeing. Every time I return to his writings in "Art and the Personal Equation," I find something I want to tell someone about!

  6. Philip - I know it. He definitely put his degree in mechanical engineering from MIT to work in his paintings. "You hold in your mind the thought of the force which the trifles obey," he wrote. "We might go on with analysis of water surface, solving with ease the complicated patterns that seem chaotic if looked at without reference to the forces that cause them... the sea pulsates with vertical motion, the surface is carried onward by the wind and breaks on the slope and the crest of the swells. The underlying structure over which the detail plays is far more important than any surface happening, since it is characteristic of an immense body of water." !!

  7. Breathtaking!! His wife, Marcia Oakes Woodbury, painted some floral watercolors that I like and also more impressively the tedious lives of Dutch women.

    1. Hi Marie-
      There's going to be a show of Marcia's work at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art opening in a couple weeks. It's called Charles and Marcia, The Woodburys in Holland, and will feature work the couple completed during their many visits to that country in search of "pre-industrialized subjects." It runs Sept 5 - Oct 31.

  8. "…paint it doing something." He certainly did. How the energy from the man-made source contrasts with that of raw nature--the wind, clouds and slow roll of the sea. Fabulous.

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  10. Hello,

    I am a Woodbury collector and actually own the painting that have have titled as "Ogunquit Headlands" in your other post (along with dozens others and 50+ etchings). I thought you would be interested in knowing that you can view his painting "Mid-Ocean" through the end of the year in MA.

    See here:

  11. Hi Darin -
    Wow! Thanks for that! I love that "Headlands" piece.

  12. Great Blog Christopher. I will keep on coming back as I am follower number 108.

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