The Magic of Marine Art

Previously, we have discussed the depiction of water in art; for example, its emotional properties, and its unique symbolic meaning. One of the most prominent forms of painting that depicts water is, of course, marine art. This unique sub-genre of landscape paintings features some of the most magnificent imagery.

Martin Swan – The Hundred Guinea Cup, Cowes 2012

Marine Art – The Definition

Marine or maritime art is a form of art that has the sea or ocean as its central focus. The genre was certainly at the height of fashion between the 17th and 19th century. Boats are usually the central subject matter; these paintings can include the human element (people working on ships, at battle, etc) or not, although, arguably a human trace is always featured if boats are included in the composition.

The Power of Composition & Subject

As a subject matter, the sea is incredibly powerful. Compositionally, marine time art is very interesting. When it was first emerging, it was very rare to see a composition without a ship or human feature in the foreground. This isn’t that surprising, as Landscape Art wasn’t recognised as an individual genre and specialism until 17th century.


Alfred Olsen – Shipping along the Coast


During the Romantic Art period, many artists who had focussed on ships and boats as a primary focus actually began leaving them out and created artworks where the entire work was focussed on the landscape or seascape itself. The sea and water itself, is a highly romanticised subject matter with many symbolic attributes so it’s no wonder that it became a feature of many landscape paintings.

Early marine art often included naval ships in battle, together with rough, frantic seas; this type of painting would be to document true battles or even legendary stories for entertainment and to feature in the homes of high naval officers. During the 17th century to 19th century when landscape art was at the height of fashion, the water was left to speak for itself; the weather would play a huge part in what emotional attributes were experienced from the painting.

Emotional Attributes

The sea can be depicted in many different ways; from rough and deadly with fierce white horses to calming coastal scenes. Each depiction has a different emotional attributes and provides the viewer with a different and unique experience for example the following depictions generally evoke the following emotional qualities:

  • Rough & wavy – frantic, struggle, anger, panic.
  • Still & calm waters – calming, relaxed.
  • Dark & stormy – sadness, gloom.
  • Water with sunrise – hope, romantic.

Of course, these are much generalised qualities, each painting’s emotional attributes and effect will vary per artwork, composition and style; the connotations of weather in art are incredibly powerful.

Modern Day Marine Art

Today the sea and ocean is still a hugely successful subject matter for all mediums of art, it is also a very fashionable style of painting to feature. The sea inspires all forms of painting; from realist oil paintings to abstract to water colour. Some artists will always be drawn to the sea, as water allows the artist to explore symbolism, skill and composition – that is the magic of marine art.



About Mark Mitchell

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