|Charles H. Woodbury, Mid-Ocean, 1894. Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass.|
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?