Yesterday, in the first of these two articles showing paintings of shipwrecks, I had reached the middle of the nineteenth century, a time when travel by sea was slowly becoming less hazardous.
I make no apology for showing four paintings by Ivan or Hovhannes Aivazovsky, the greatest and most prolific marine artist of the nineteenth century. Although often asserted to be a Russian painter, he was born into an Armenian family living in Crimea, in modern Ukraine, and kept a studio there for much of his career. I’ll let you decide whether he should be recognised as Armenian, Russian or Ukrainian!
The Ninth Wave (1850) is Aivazovsky’s best-known painting, and one of the classic depictions of shipwreck alongside Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), although not as a social or political statement. Its title derives from the belief that waves occur in trains of nine, progressively increasing in size to the ninth wave. Some nautical traditions claim that the number is seven rather than nine, and although there is some underlying evidence to support wave trains, inevitably real life is not as regular.
This detail demonstrates how Aivazovsky refers to Géricault’s pyramidal form of the survivors, but has borrowed little else.
As Turner did, Aivazovsky’s Tempest (1857) shows how storms dissolve the boundaries between sky, sea, and land. He refers here to an older tradition of including a wreck, with a survivor being rescued from flotsam in the foreground, and a brigantine being driven onto the rocks.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Eugène Delacroix loosened his brushwork in his last couple of years with this stormy Shipwreck off a Coast (1862).
The crew of Aivazovsky’s wrecked sailing ship are abandoning it in his Moonlit Seascape With Shipwreck from 1863.
Aivazovsky also painted reconstructions of naval battles and notable peacetime wrecks, including the Loss of the Ship “Ingermanland” in the Skagerrak on the Night of 30 August, 1842 (1876).
The American painter Winslow Homer lived in the small fishing village of Cullercoats, on the north-east coast of England, for nearly two years in 1881-82, where he witnessed the hard life of fisherfolk at first hand.
His watercolour of the Wreck of the Iron Crown (1881) may well have been painted in response to the sight of a real-life wreck.
In the early morning of 21 October 1881, the thousand-ton barque, the Iron Crown, was driven aground in a storm. In the next hours, the ship’s crew were rescued, following which the derelict broke up. Homer later painted a watercolour showing the rescue, probably constructed from sketches, witness accounts, and photographs. He shows the second and final pass of the lifeboat, required to rescue the last member of the crew on board.
His later watercolour of Sharks (The Derelict) (1885) shows the lasting change in Homer’s art as a result of his time at Cullercoats, ensuring his well-deserved reputation as one of America’s greatest painters.
Later in the century artists got closer in to consider the human consequences of shipwrecks more vividly. Alfred Guillou’s Adieu! (1892) shows a survivor from a wreck embracing a boy, probably his son, who wasn’t so fortunate. The name across the stern of the ship’s boat, Concarneau, places the scene on the wild coast of Brittany.
Ary Renan’s enigmatic Young Woman Contemplating a Skull by a Shipwreck on the Beach, painted in 1892, is set on the Île-de-Bréhat, a small cluster of islands one mile off the Channel coast of Brittany, towards the Channel Isles.
A young partially-clad woman is stood on a sandy beach. By her right foot is a human skull, partly buried in the sand. She is looking down at it. Around her are the remains of an old wreck, a wooden ship, whose broad stern fills much of the upper half of the painting. At the left, in line with the woman’s arched foot, is an old anchor protruding from the sand. At the right is one of the timbers, resembling a massive human rib.
Virginie Demont-Breton’s moving Stella Maris (1894) (here in a monochrome photo) has multiple interpretations. Stella Maris is a popular name for Polaris, the Pole Star, used since ancient times for celestial navigation, but is also a traditional synonym for the Virgin Mary, shown here as a distant vision, and bearing the infant Jesus in her arms.
Tomorrow I’ll show paintings of Shakespeare’s very different account of the consequences of shipwreck.