Tuesday, October 27, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #12 - Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck

Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck, Horace Vernet , Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 28 3/8 in. (59 x 72 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This painting is chilling...also painted by Émile-Jean-Horace Vernet, it is a scene of people rescuing victims from a shipwreck that are washed up on the rocky shore. The waves are dominating the image, and the people are tiny in comparison. The Romanticists were enthralled with this idea of the raw power and destruction of nature, and this painting is evident of that interest. A woman is limply being fished out of the sea, either unconscious or dead; the viewer is not sure which it is which adds to the drama. Another man is swimming to shore and grabs at the rocks as he tries to get back on land. If you have ever spent time on a coast and witnessed the power of a storm, you may have a glimpse into this artwork. This vulnerability of man in nature is a common theme in Romantic painting.

The right side of the painting is made up of the rocky shore. I have had my own dramatic event on a rocky shoreline; while snorkeling off the coast of Cozumel, I got caught in a strong surf which pushed and pulled me to and from the rocks (the coast is not a sandy beach, but made of lava rocks as sharp as razor blades). As I was pushed towards the sharp rocks, I tried to grab for them, but then the swell would pull me away back to sea. This happened about 3 or 4 cycles when my husband recognized my precarious situation and called for me to swim back to him, which I did. We both swam back down the shoreline until we found a better place to access a friendlier part of the beach. I will tell you, when I got back on land my legs felt like Jello!! I knew that I had been in a situation that was beyond my swimming skills and without his help I might have had a different outcome. I truly felt as though he had saved my life.

What is interesting about Vernet's painting, is that he shows a tiny slice of the aftermath of the shipwreck. We don't see the ship or any other survivors, so we are left wondering about the rest of the story. What kind of ship was it? Where was it headed? Were there other people on the boat? Are they still drifting about in the sea? When we view art, we may have an obvious connection as my own story above relates. There can be parallels in our lives with the great art we see. By keeping a painting's narrative open and ambigous we are invited to construct our own story or even recall a life event of our own that parallels the picture. I love rocks and though they are beautiful, they can be deadly to our fragile existence. Perhaps you can conjour your own story about this painting; I know I have tasted salt water and felt fear in a vulnerable moment at sea, and it is a feeling and moment I will never forget.

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