“Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting,” the first major exhibition to examine the eponymous genre, opens next week at the Yale Center for British Art.
Bringing together works in a variety of media, including paintings, preparatory sketches, letters and models, “Spreading Canvas” will consider the place of maritime painting in eighteenth-century British society, particularly in relation to Britain’s rise as a maritime and imperial power.
Eleanor Hughes, Deputy Director for Art and Program at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, who curated the exhibition, explained that the show represents an important collaboration between the YCBA and several other public and private collections. Hughes highlighted the contributions of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, an institution with a history of collecting and displaying marine paintings.
“The collections of marine art at the NMM and the Yale Center for British Art really complement one another, so [we] wanted to bring out the best of the Center’s collection, to demonstrate its strengths, and to use unique and spectacular loans from the Maritime Museum as well as from other public institutions and private lenders to augment the display,” Hughes said.
Organized around a series of thematic groupings, the exhibition begins with the arrival of the van de Veldes — a father-son duo of Dutch painters — in Britain at the end of the seventeenth century, and their studio’s collection of works on paper, which frequently served as the model for other British artists. The show concludes in the 1790s, with marine painters’ responses to the decade’s artistic revolutions, among them J.M.W. Turner’s revolutionary interpretations of maritime subjects.
Hughes noted that she and her colleagues selected the pieces on display for their visual interest — paintings “so striking that they had to be included,” Hughes said — as well as for the stories they tell.
One such cluster features an oil painting by Samuel Scott, “Vice Admiral Sir George Anson’s Victory off Cape Finisterre” (1749), which still hangs in its original “trophy frame.” Part of a series depicting events in the Admiral’s career, the painting originally hung at Shugborough — a house belonging to Admiral Anson’s older brother — in a decorative arrangement that celebrated the admiral’s naval exploits. “Spreading Canvas” displays the painting in an interpretive recreation of the arrangement, which was described in a letter written by the admiral’s wife.
Shalisa James ’18, who said she developed an interest in British art during a summer program at Cambridge University, noted that she hopes to see “Spreading Canvas” to further her understanding of a “less well-known” genre of British painting.
Kai DeBus ’18 explained that he was interested in attending the exhibition because of previous experiences studying the history of British imperialism, adding that he would like to learn more about the importance of marine vessels and naval exploits during the period by examining the ways they were documented by artists.
For her part, Hughes hopes viewers will enjoy the variety of the genre of “marine painting” — one, perhaps, that they might not initially expect.
“I think that visitors will have a more varied experience in the exhibition than they might expect, due not only to the range of media represented but also the variety of images encompassed in the genre,” Hughes said. “I hope they will take the time to engage with some of the works and the stories underlying both what they represent and how they were made; they are so much more than ‘pictures of boats’”!
“Spreading Canvas” will remain on view at the YCBA through Dec. 4.