Fruit of the Sea: Paintings of seashells 2

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Japanese Still Life (1879), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 88.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles yesterday, I showed examples of paintings featuring seashells, drawn mainly from classical Mediterranean mythology and vanitas painting in the Dutch Golden Age. These weren’t completely forgotten in the nineteenth century, but their treatment had changed considerably.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Glaucus and Scylla (1841), oil on panel, 78.3 x 77.5 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Turner’s Glaucus and Scylla from 1841 has little in common with earlier mythological images, and would perhaps have looked more at home among paintings made fifty or even eighty years later. The naked Scylla is on the beach at the right, with a couple of cupids flying about. The rather inchoate figure of Glaucus is emerging to the left of centre, holding his arms out towards Scylla. She will have none of it, though, and has already turned to run, and looks back over her shoulder towards him.

We look directly into the setting sun, which has coloured the world a rich gold. In the right background the low coastal land rises to sheer cliffs, on top of which is a temple. A tower atop a nearer pinnacle, or more distant lower red rocks, may be a reference to Scylla’s fate.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Glaucus and Scylla (detail) (1841), oil on panel, 78.3 x 77.5 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

In the foreground are clues of the beach setting, with a crab, and several seashells, devices which Turner also used in other paintings.

In 1845, William Dyce was invited to paint far more conventional frescos for the British Royal Family, and travelled to Italy to learn technique. On his return in 1847, he painted this curious composition in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s new and luxurious holiday palace of Osborne House, at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight (just a few miles from where I live).

William Dyce (1806–1864), Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847), fresco, 350 x 510 cm, Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Neptune stands astride his three white seahorses (with fish tails!), holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Mercury (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand.

Neptune is supported by his entourage in the sea, including the statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation. At the lower left, one of Dyce’s sea nymphs dips her hand into a large and ornate clamshell to pick pearls for her tribute to Britannia.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Venus Rising from the Sea (1866), oil on panel, 55.5 × 44.5 cm, Israel Museum מוזיאון ישראל, Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly twenty years later, Gustave Moreau reinterpreted Aphrodite Anadyomene in his Venus Rising from the Sea (1866). The goddess has just arrived from the sea, and sits on a coastal rock, her arms outstretched in an almost messianic pose. Her very long, thick hair cascades down the rock behind her, through her right hand, and over her left arm, glistening in the light. She has a spiculate diadem/halo around her head, and behind her, a voluminous robe billows up in the breeze.

On the left, a mermaid attendant holds up half an oyster shell with a single large pearl glinting in it. On the right, a merman proffers her bright pink coral, and cradles a large conch shell. Behind them is a rugged rocky coastline of Renaissance appearance, and in the immediate foreground is a fragment of pink coral and a small collection of seashells on a sandy islet.

With the development of Symbolism in the late nineteenth century, seashells appeared in a wider range of paintings.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), oil on canvas, 40.6 x 71.1 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, San Francisco, CA. The Athenaeum.

The sphinx was a mythical creature with the head of a human, the haunches of a lion, and sometimes a bird’s wings. Two varieties are described in the classical literature: the Greek sphinx, based on a woman and typically shown with human breasts, and the Egyptian, based on a man’s upper body. The only example of the Greek sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes, whose deadly riddle was solved by Oedipus.

In The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), Elihu Vedder shows a distinctly Greek sphinx in a desert which, unlike Thebes, is on the coast. Around the sphinx are the skulls and other remains of its victims, and in the foreground are seashells emphasising the water’s edge.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Japanese Still Life (1879), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 88.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Like other artists of the day, Vedder developed a fascination for objets d’art from the Far East, which he assembled in this Japanese Still Life in 1879. The painted screen and fabric are fairly conventional, but the large seashell is more unusual. This may have been assisted by the fact that his brother was a US Navy doctor who was stationed in Japan as it was being re-opened to the West.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), La coquille (The Seashell) (1912), pastel, 52 x 57.8 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Odilon Redon’s late pastel painting of the sea bed, The Seashell (1912), features a large shell amid a wide range of textures and colours, and when seen in real life has a powerful three-dimensional effect in the shell itself.

Wings over Water 1930 by Frances Hodgkins 1869-1947
Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947), Wings over Water (1930), oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Geoffrey, Peter and Richard Gorer in memory of Rèe Alice Gorer 1954), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Most recently in this selection, Frances Hodgkins painted Wings over Water, a view from her rooms in Bodinnick, Cornwall, during the winter of 1931-32. Carefully placed in the foreground is a still life consisting of three large seashells with floral and plant arrangements. Sitting on the fence in the middle of the view is her landlady’s parrot, beyond which is the expanse of the River Fowey.

For my final painting of this selection, I go back to a small oil sketch painted by Peter Paul Rubens in about 1636, for a delightful story linking seashells and colour.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple (c 1636), oil on panel, 28 × 34 cm, Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne, France. Wikimedia Commons.

A man, middle-aged, well-muscled, and wearing a lionskin, is walking his dog on a Mediterranean beach. The dog is sniffing around the shells and other debris that have been washed up with the waves, and starts to eat one of the shells, as dogs do. His mouth quickly turns bright purple. The dog’s owner looks carefully at the animal’s mouth, fearful that it is cut and bleeding, until he sees the colour, and it is obvious that the dog is unhurt.

According to Julius Pollux, writing in his Onomasticon in the second century CE, that is how the brilliant purple dye Tyrian purple was discovered. The dog-owner was Heracles (Hercules), the great hero of Greek and Roman myth.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple (detail) (c 1636), oil on panel, 28 × 34 cm, Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pollux was an obscure Greek sophist, grammarian, and professor of rhetoric, who came from Egypt, but was appointed to the Academy in Athens, allegedly on account of his melodious voice. He was a thoroughly unreliable historian, and only told this legend in passing in what should have been a thesaurus of Attic words and phrases.

In around 1502, Aldus Manutius – pioneer Venetian publisher and scholar – resurrected and published Pollux’s book, which was re-issued in 1520, and again in 1536. Finally in 1541, a Latin translation was made, and its curious and frequently false stories became accessible.

Rubens, a well-educated and widely read artist, must have come across a copy of Pollux, and was inspired to paint his wonderful sketch of the story, shown above. Not only that, but Theodoor van Thulden (1606-1669, a resident of Bosch’s home town, ‘s-Hertogenbosch) did the same. I have been unable to locate an image of the latter painting, which is now in the Prado, in Madrid.

Tyrian purple is a dye with a similar mystique and value (in antiquity) as the much later pigment ultramarine was to painters. Until recently, it was thought to have been used first by the Phoenicians before 1500 BCE, but the latest archaeological evidence suggests that the Minoans may have pioneered its extraction long before that, perhaps as early as 1700 BCE, and it may have been produced in southern Italy from slightly earlier.

Rubens didn’t depict the shell correctly either. Although Tyrian purple was extracted from a marine snail, its shell doesn’t resemble the land snail shown in the painting above, but a typical example of one of the productive species is shown below.

Haustellum brandaris, from Torregaveta, Bacoli (NA) Italy. Image by M.Violante, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tyrian purple was one of the few bright, high chroma dyes which are reasonably lightfast. It was therefore highly sought-after, and extremely expensive: in the fourth century BCE, it was reported to cost its weight in silver. Given that as many as twelve thousand sea snails were required to produce around 1.4 kg of purified dye, and that would have been sufficient for only the trim of a substantial garment, owning a robe or cloak dyed in Tyrian purple was a privilege open to a very select few.

The main site of production was the Levantine port of Tyre, where dye manufacture gave the area a distinctive smell, which was widely noted in classical literature. The snails were collected from the sea, and left to rot in large vats – giving rise to the odour – before being processed into purified dye. The details of this extraction were only re-discovered by chance in 1998 by John Edmonds, a British engineer.

With Tyrian purple so costly to purchase, when you come across a contemporary image of someone from classical times who is dressed in purple, you know that they are someone really special, who wants to declare their high status too.

Although painters have inevitably been professionally interested in colour, Tyrian purple is a dye, not a pigment. Indigo is a close relative, produced by a different species of sea snail, which has been equally successful as a dye, and much cheaper. Tyrian purple has been little used in painting, but indigo has been used since classical times, and has sadly proved to be fugitive in artists’ paints.

In oil paintings, purples and violets were invariably the result of mixing reds and blues until 1859, when the first single-pigment lightfast violet, cobalt violet, was synthesised. Rubens’ painting therefore centres on a colour which he could not use, and which was to remain a problem for artists for the next three centuries. It’s still a great story, though.