Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Seascape in the Morning, by Simon de Vlieger (1640-45)

After the storm comes the calm, both in real life and in art. (I’ve come to believe that art may be more important than life, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

We continue our weeklong look at painter Simon de Vlieger, who was born in Rotterdam in about 1601.  Above is Seascape in the Morning, executed by de Vlieger around 1640-45.  It is, simply, spectacular.

De Vlieger knows, as do all great artists, that the success of any seascape is not the depiction of the water, but, of the sky above it.  The sea, whether calm or stormy, is the vehicle for something much greater and more dramatic – the sky is all of its many magnificent manifestations.

It is the sky through which de Vlieger decides to tell his story.  Read from right to left, this seascape clearly tells the story of deliverance after travail.  To the right of the painting, where the sky is darkest, you see seaman working on their damaged boat.  A smoky fire burns (probably for either tar or pitch, used for sealing the boat beams), and the wooden structure for reeling in boats is clearly decaying from sea air and water rot.

In the foreground left, we see a boat of seamen, either rowing towards shore, but perhaps to one of the waiting boats in the distance.  A figure stands alone among them; this figure clearly stands in an attitude of prayer.  Whether this is a prayer of thanksgiving or a prayer of deliverance is unknown, but it would appear (from the attitude of the right-most rower) that they are heading ashore.

But, look at the ships in the middle distance.  A fully-rigged ship is heading towards the rising sun, and other ships become indistinct ghosts the closer they get to the distant horizon.

That the horizon is benevolent is evidenced by the columns of white light that penetrate through the clouds.  These rays of light illuminate the clouds, brightening them, and radiate clear beams of light that reach into the sky.  The quality of light is not unlike those that emanate from halos in religious iconography, and whether de Vlieger does this intentionally or unconsciously, the effect is the same.  It is morning, and we have survived to make another day.

This is an oddly … religious painting.  Without the benefit of any Christian iconography, de Vlieger paints a stunning story of trial and transcendence, or human suffering and the hope for heaven.  As so many of us continue to dig out from under the snow, it is a comforting image to retain.

More de Vlieger tomorrow!

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