I dream of the sea. From oceanography to maritime history to sea shanties, I just can’t get enough of those seemingly endless waters that cover a good percentage of our planet.
Usually, this isn’t particularly handy as a professional skill, but since I’ve been doing extensive research on images of shipwrecks in early modern European art of late, I’ve finally found an excuse to learn more about my favorite tempestuous topic.
And boy, is there a lot to learn!
A quick note: all images are public domain from Wikimedia Commons (and easily an odd hundred years or so out of copyright!).
Should you seek to become personally acquainted with all there is to know about shipwreck narratives in popular culture (and who wouldn’t?), there’s no better place to start than James V. Morrison’s Shipwrecked: Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and the Modern World. If I myself were mid-tempest and could only choose one academic text to carry onto the lifeboat with me, Morrison’s exploration of all things castaway–from Odysseus to Lost–would certainly not go down with the ship. It’s a well-written, thorough analysis of classical literature and cult film alike: and provided me with an essential launching point for my own art historical research.
Of course, it’s no surprise that Morrison’s book explores The Tempest, the Shakespeare play known for its own treatment of the shipwreck narrative. I first stepped onto the sorcerer Prospero’s mysterious island when I was fourteen years old, when I found it utterly enchanting– and now I find it enough to keep my post-colonial theorist’s mind busy for ages.
Anyway, in this painting, Waterhouse depicts Prospero’s sheltered daughter Miranda in the midst of a scene that we never actually see in the play: here, Miranda watches in dismay as a ship wrecks off the coast of their hidden island. The events aboard the ship during the eponymous tempest itself take place during the play’s first scene, while Miranda merely describes the catastrophe she has witnessed in the second scene:
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out.
While The Tempest is certainly one of the earlier, more popular examples of “shipwreck literature,” Waterhouse’s twentieth-century painting is, in fact, the most recent of the many fine tempestuous works I’ve discovered…
Claude-Joseph Varnet (or just Joseph Varnet, as he’s sometimes known) is another early modern master of the wild seas. The Shipwreck, like many tempest paintings, is a theatrical collection of chaotic moments in miniature: all illuminated by a striking, divine staircase of light drawing the eye towards the falling mast near the shore.
Vernet was preceded by Bonaventura Peeters and other artists of the Dutch Golden Age, when the cultural focus swung strongly towards maritime culture. To be honest, art history has seen an incredible number of “shipwreck artists”–I’ve barely mentioned Turner, or Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, or N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Robinson Crusoe, but perhaps some are best left for you to discover on your own!
I’ll close, then, with a quotation from one of my personal favorite works of shipwreck poetry:
“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun…