I hope you’re ready for another visit to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in this, the seventh of a series of posts examining artworks which have caught my eye.
This time I look at a trio of paintings themed with the sea. They all feature a craft or vessel on the water, either in a dangerous situation or after that time of crisis.
Unlike the portraits and interiors we previously put under the microscope these three paintings emphasise the open sea as a place of peril. How exactly do they do this?
In 1746 the French ambassador to Rome commissioned Claude-Joseph Vernet, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes, to paint two canvases: this one, entitled Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica, depicted a morning storm. The ruins of the domed temple of the goddess Minerva was situated in Rome but in this fantasy is transported to the coast and set by the lighthouse.
In the bay Vernet (1714–1789) shows a naval vessel struggling against an onshore wind on its starboard side, while in the foreground fishermen are tugging a boat onto the rocky shore away from the swell. I’m guessing the sailing ship is Dutch: the tricolor here must be the Statenvlag, the Netherlands State Flag dating from 1664. (The French revolutionary tricolor came about long after this painting, and has vertical stripes of course, not horizontal.)
An angler also hoists himself onto the rocks while two figures, one of them a woman, are looking or pointing towards the viewer’s right, out of the picture.
Vernet has framed his picture well to draw our gaze up towards the pinnacle of the lighthouse: there is a kind of vortex with the fishermen dragging their boat to the left, where the pointing figure and the lean of the vessel then take our eye up to the lowering cloudscape above and behind the tower on the right. Our vista is cut off bottom and left by rocks, cliff and tree so that we have no choice but to marvel at the whipped-up dark green of the waves, the grey of the lighthouse rocks and the portentous stormclouds.
It’s worth comparing this canvas with the same artist’s A Storm with a Shipwreck (1753-4) in the Wallace Collection, not only in terms of composition but in the way the attention there is shifted to the shipwreck and associated figures rather than another similarly placed tower, this time on a city wall.
Incidentally, the domed ‘temple’ is actually a nymphaeum, a natural cave or structure dedicated to water sprites, that still exists in Rome. The 12th-century lighthouse can still be visited in Genoa.
We come next to Irish artist Francis Danby and his Sunset at Sea, after a Storm, completed in 1824. Unfortunately the picture has darkened rather over time so my photos below have been slightly lightened (with apologies for any visible relections on the glass over the canvas).
Our first impression is of the skyscape, angry reds and pinks contrasting with an azure sky as the sun sets through the distant clouds. After a moment of peering through the murk it becomes clear that the lurid sun has sea cliffs to the left (and possibly the right), with towers of cumulus formed above them.
But something is looming in the turbulent waves to the left, below the coastline. There are at least four or five figures attempting to steer a raft to which some indistinct items have been added.
One is driven to the conclusion that these are survivors of a wreck who’ve managed to fashion themselves a raft stocked with who knows what extras. There’s one individual crouched in the middle though whether they’re ill or in despair is impossible to say.
In an 1849 print by William Miller we can see more clearly what Danby intended: the prone figure lies by a large wicker basket, the lone oarsman stands exhausted, while one of the remaining trio is pointing towards land, kindling hope for the survivors.
What the print cannot show is the vibrancy of the colours that make this such a eye-catching image, sunsets at sea such as Danby may have seen travelling from Ireland or, indeed, during his five or six years in the West Country.
After leaving his native Ireland Danby (1793-1861) lived in Bristol for many years but painted this canvas in the year he left for fame in London; he liked this conceit so much he painted a similar scene (now in the Yale Center for British Art).
The third and final painting I want to expound on by Strasbourg-born Philip Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). He settled in London in 1771 to become a scenery painter at Drury Lane; he also painted battle scenes, and his dramatic The Cutting-Out of the French Corvette, ‘La Chevrette’ July 21, 1801 was in the tradition of Vernet’s naval warfare canvases. Even with me reflected in its protective glass one can appreciate the power of this image, a good example of the once popular genre — though to be sure there’s precious little sea to see here.
Loutherbourg based his 1802 painting on a true incident when, from one of four British frigates blockading the harbour at Brest in Brittany, a daring raid was carried out on the corvette La Chevrette. Despite the French being armed and waiting, the British captured the ship, killing its captain; when the prize arrived in Plymouth it proved to be a huge morale-boost for the British cause despite its lack of strategic gain.
The composition is cleverly layered, boats in the foreground, the smoke of battle across the middle and more distant figures in combat on the corvette’s foredeck. In addition there is a strongly delineated diagonal created by the redcoated marines bottom left along the bowsprit to the top right. Rendered in black and white the painting’s structure is even clearer, with the British officer pointing the required direction of gaze. Perhaps he is also drawing attention to the strangely nonchalant figurehead, blissfully ignoring the tumult around her.
On the deck is another heroic British officer echoing the stance of his compatriot while leaping into the fierce fray. Though there’s no gory evidence of blood and guts, the body count amongst the French far exceeds that of their attackers, who are swarming all over the vessel like ants.
His blue-coated French counterpart on the right hand side of the painting is in a boat which has gone to the defence of La Chevrette. It’s manned by what seems to be a ragtag crew, reluctant to follow the officer. They may, of course be put off by the number of corpses in view.
In a painting glorifying jingoism and war we mustn’t forget that there is a serene, female presence in the scene. She may be semi-naked and completely wooden but she is the still eye of the hurricane. She’s no personification of a young nanny goat — which is what chevrette means — gazing instead into a future under a different flag.
Though I’ve focused on composition in this discussion I’ll end with a brief comment on what drew me to these pictures and what emotional reaction I had to them.
All three are seascapes, of course, and I do find being at or on the sea fascinating though its very unpredictability and uncontrollable nature makes me very wary of it.
The fact that all three canvasses deal with tumult — storm, being cast adrift, or violent conflict — exemplifies my ambivalent feelings towards the element. That the artistic treatment of the sea itself as dark, mountainous and yet alive, or blood-red with the setting sun, or a place where men die, only accentuates those feelings. Perhaps for you too?