ART REVIEW | Maritime art sails into YCBA

Summer is gone, but the sea can still be found this month at the Yale Center for British Art.

“Seascapes: Paintings and Watercolors from the U Collection,” an exhibition that has been at British Art Center since May 28, includes over 20 marine paintings and watercolors. Donated by an anonymous individual, the collection of works tracks the history of early British maritime paintings and drawings, a practice that originated with the work of Dutch painters. Traveling through the exhibit is not only a journey through Britain’s mighty seafaring past with tumultuous waters and awe-inspiring ships, but an important lesson in British art history.

Curator of the exhibit and the assistant curator of exhibitions and publications at the British Art Center, Eleanor Hughes, said her goal was to tell a story with the paintings.

“One of the lovely things is that you can tell the story of how British marine painting emerged from the Dutch tradition as it came to Britain through paintings that were part of the art market,” she said. “There was a very specific and British tradition of marine painting that was sparked, and you can track it through the exhibit.”

This tradition begins with two Dutch painters, Willem Van de Velde and his son Willem, who traveled to London in 1672 at the request of Charles II to paint their signature maritime subjects. Van de Velde the younger’s “English Royal Yachts at Sea in a Strong Breeze,” depicts a ship with a red flag, signifying that a member of royalty is onboard. Ominous clouds and choppy seas set the tone for this picture that is thought to represent the gruesome wreck of the Glaucestor in which James, the Duke of York, managed to escape, but over 150 people perished.

The geography of England plays a central role in several paintings where land is used to a ship’s advantage. In Francis Swaine’s “A Naval Squadron Lying at Spithead,” a ship lies in waiting at Spithead, a strait in the English Channel between the northeastern shore of the Isle of Wight and the south coast of England. Ships would wait in this natural shelter for favorable winds.

As the tradition of maritime painting in England grew, artists such as Edward Duncan demonstrated their own unique style. Duncan’s painting “Off Whitby” makes use of a layered setting and an original narrative depicting the changeability of weather and the lives with which the sea toys.

But not all of the exhibit’s pieces portray the British navy ready for combat. Peter Monamy, one of the first Englishmen to garner fame as a marine painter, created several “calms,” which feature peaceful seas and blue skies. His “An English Royal Yacht Standing Offshore in a Calm” was painted during a relatively stable time in Britain, and its upbeat tone portrays nothing but smooth sailing.

“Seascapes” is a welcome addition to the rest of the British Art Center’s collection of maritime painting. Director of the British Art Center Amy Meyers said the exhibit only amplifies the rest of the museum’s pieces and will become important for the study of British art.

“We have a marvelous collection of British paintings and of maritime paintings and drawings, and this enhances what we’ve been given,” she said. “Our own collection is already very strong in this arena and lets us tell that with a greater power.”

“Seascapes” will be on display until Oct. 18.

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