The Characteristics of Coastal Art

In our previous article, we asked the question; ‘why do we love the landscape?‘ – which explored exactly what it is about the landscape that we, as humans are drawn to about this type of art. What we didn’t look at are the many sub-genres of landscape paintings and, of course, one of these is the depiction of the coast, which has fascinated many landscape painters (especially British painters) throughout history.

So, why are/were artists, both modern and historical, drawn to the coast? Well, there are many different reasons, however one of the most notable (especially when it comes to art history) is class.

Class & Fashion

Martin Swann – Boats Moored at Cowes

In the past a visit to the coast for a trip or a holiday was reserved wholly to the upper classes in society; this can certainly be attributed to the Victorian era, when the richer population would often visit Cornwall. This is one coastline of Britain that was incredibly romanticised, thus becoming a first class ‘holiday’ destination – a status that it arguably maintains today.

But what does this have to do with coastal art? The answer lies in history; for example, in the past, art (oil paintings especially) was reserved solely for the upper class of society – remember commissions were the sole way for an artist to make money. Patrons desired lavish paintings of dramatic, beautiful seascapes of places that they had visited or fashionable destinations. These coastal paintings were certainly a declaration of status.

Challenge & Skill

Of course, to say that seascapes and coastal depictions were solely created for fashion and commission purposes would be incorrect. Like landscape paintings which depict rolling hills and a marvel of mountains, coastal paintings are a celebration – or experiment – of skill. Water is certainly a tricky subject matter to recreate; it’s never still and is full of life. This is why so many seascapes feature boats and ships, in order to create a sense of movement.

Alfred Olsen – Shipping Along the Coast

Above all, artists enjoy a challenge and to take their skill to the next level, especially when it comes to those who focus on representational artwork.

Experience & Emotion

Even in a post-modern art world, artists continue to be drawn to the coast and to the sea for inspiration. Sculptor Antony Gormley famously created ‘Another Place’ at Crosby Beach in Merseyside which includes 100 cast iron human sculptures who are all staring out to sea to explore the relationship between humans and nature. 

Antony Gormley – Another Place

This admittedly eerie, yet comforting piece highlights the exact reason why we’re so drawn to the coast; as artists and viewers of art – the coast is experiential, ever-changing, yet characteristically familiar.

Martin Swann – The Hundred Guinea Cup, Cowes 2012

When looking back in time to artists such as Turner (who we looked at in our previous article) and to today, for example Martin Swann, it’s easy to see that experience, emotion, and passion for the coast is a prominent feature in coastal paintings,whether consciously considered or not. For example, take a look at the above painting The Hundred Guinea Cup, Cowes 2012; as a viewer you can almost feel the breeze on your skin – the painting is just brimming with vibrancy and energy; it’s certainly an experiential piece, as well as compositionally strong.

The coast is forever transforming; it’s altered by so many varying elements and it’s often breathtakingly beautiful – it really is a powerful subject matter that continues to inspire and influence artists working in all mediums to date. Whether coastal art is created in order to make a social commentary, or is simply for aesthetic purposes, there’s no doubt about it – it’s certainly relevant.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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