The recent storms here in Southern California have been dramatic—because we’re simply not accustomed to them.
We’ve seen scary seas in Moby Dick—but that’s cinema. Generally for us today the ocean offers surf, beaches and a sweet breeze. Its storms can be wild and beautiful, but aren’t at all fearsome.
Wind from the Sea Andrew Wyeth 1947
Andrew Wyeth in l947 captured our contemporary relationship with the ocean when he depicted a gentle sea breeze gently tousling tattered curtains. In his painting the ocean is intuitively friendly. It’s just beyond view yet offers a sweet wind to refresh even a shabby room.
For many centuries artists viewed the ocean as menacing and powerful. These paintings were magnificently executed by sometimes extraordinarily talented artists who lived in areas where storms were the norm, where ships crashed and sailors disappeared. To them, the ocean was capable of cruel violence.
The maestro of depicting stormy weather was, of course, Rembrandt. Being Dutch, on the stormy Atlantic where ferocious storms were de rigueur and where ships and their crews were regularly destroyed, he captured the majestic power of Neptune’s wrath.
The Storm in the Sea of Galilee 1633 Rembrandt
Rembrandt went for the drama: Black vs White. Note how the right and bottom of his magnificent painting are almost black. White is only on the left. Ochres and umbers in the middle. The faces and clothes of the people are drabbed down. His storms are sinister. The darkness is terrible and life-threatening.
Rembrandt set the standard artists would aspire to for 200 years. Ludolf Bakhuizen , for instance, followed Rembrandt’s standard. The German-born Bakhuizen , who lived in Holland, is said to have tied himself into a small open boat during storms to study their colors.
Ships Running Aground in a Storm Ludolf Bakhuizen 1690 German born Dutch
Like Rembrandt, he also painted dark vs light for drama. The ferocity of the black clouds vs white roil of the waves have made this painting a classic. Somehow the observer senses that lives are doomed.
Boat and Stormy Sky John Constable 1824 English
Two centuries after Rembrandt, Englishman John Constable struggled to diffuse the melancholy of the dark, blending prominent blues and siennas amid splashes of white. His storm is less fearsome. There’s ferocity but not terror. No one seems at risk for his life.
Constable received little recognition. In his lifetime he sold only twenty canvases in England and a few more in Europe.
Seascape Study with Raincloud 1824 John Constable
Fame and recognition came only after his death, when his sense of color and brushwork inspired Impressionists --and even 20th century abstractionists. And contemporary realists today.
On the other hand, JMW Turner, a barber’s son, was so brilliant from the very outset, so acclaimed in England and across Europe, that he became essentially the Picasso of his time.
His amazing understanding of light and color, the fluid motion of his brush, all deserved his applause and success. He was astonishingly prolific and wildly acclaimed, the greatest landscape—and seascape—painter of the l9th century.
Waves Breaking Against the Wind 1840 JMW Turner
Turner’s seascapes are so beautiful it’s hard to remember that the ocean is fearsome. The light and motion dance above the ocean’s swells. Light overcomes the dark. He transformed the storm’s malevolence into swirls of luminance.
Indeed, Turner’s gorgeous sweeping oceans inspired the sweet breezes painted a century later by Andrew Wyeth.