The vision of the sea in the 19th centurye century

The vision of the sea in the 19th century<sup>e</sup> century

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  • Landscape with a river in the distance and bay.

    TURNER Joseph (1775 - 1851)

  • The wave.

    COURBET Gustave (1819 - 1877)

  • Young girls by the sea.

    PUVIS DE CHAVANNES Pierre (1824 - 1898)

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Title: Landscape with a river in the distance and bay.

Author : TURNER Joseph (1775 - 1851)

School : English

Creation date : 1835

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 93.5 - Width 123.5

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 94DE15118 / RF 1967-2

Landscape with a river in the distance and bay.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

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Title: The wave.

Author : COURBET Gustave (1819 - 1877)

School : Realism

Creation date : 1870

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 117.1 - Width 160.5

Technique and other indications: Painting also known as "The stormy sea" Oil on canvas

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 93DE867 / RF 213

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Young girls by the sea.

Author : PUVIS DE CHAVANNES Pierre (1824 - 1898)

School : Symbolism

Creation date : 1879

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 205 - Width 154

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot / C. Jean

Picture reference: 86EE347 / RF 1970-34

Young girls by the sea.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Jean

Publication date: November 2007

Historical context

Before 1750, oceanic spaces attracted little more than sailors. In the XVIIe century, Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain, is one of the rare painters to use it in his Harbor views for example, a serene image. The words of classical mythology and of the Bible fill the seas with multiple dangers, to which the persistence of acts of piracy gives a very real character.

This image is gradually fading in Western consciousness, thanks to a process of familiarization to which the success of the great circum-terrestrial voyages and the development of West European merchant navies contributed, but also the diffusion at the beginning of the 18th century.e of natural theology, which argues that the oceans and coasts were willed by God, the popularization of the writings of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, cantor of distant shores and the rise of romantic sensibility that draws part of his imagination in the contemplation of nature. From 1750 to 1840 occurs what historian Alain Corbin calls the "irresistible awakening of collective desire for the shores". A growing number of doctors prescribe a stay at the sea for its salty air and cold baths; the seas attract romantics, melancholics and all "those who, for fear of the miasma, come to rub shoulders with the foam".

This new attraction is reflected in the painting of the XIXe century. Certainly, in the XVIIe century and eighteenthe, the storms of the Dutch masters, the mythical anchorages of Lorrain, the flourishing ports of Vernet, the silent reveries of Friedrich already testified to a fascination for maritime spaces, but the XIXe century deepens and diversifies its “desire for the shore”. In what way?

Image Analysis

At the turn of the century, the observer liked to let his eye wander, losing itself in these infinite expanses that no visual limit limits. Englishman Turner’s panorama evokes a desire for escape. Its simple palette, dazzling in browns, light beiges, soft grays and luminous white, enlivens an amphibious landscape with shimmers and vibrations where land, sea and sky, indistinct surfaces, interpenetrate within a deliberately unstructured composition. Meanders, wet sand, spray, mist and vapors erase the boundaries between the three elements. This romantic shore invites you to dream, even to melancholy, but, mixing “millennial sediments and ephemeral deposits”, it also provokes a feeling of dizzying time.

The wave de Courbet does not have the lightness of Turner’s landscapes. During his stay in Étretat in the summer of 1869, the painter observed several storms through the window of his house. The wave, carried out at the same time as The Cliff of Étretat after the storm and presented, with its counterpart, at the Salon of 1870, represents a wave fringed with foam that will fall on the beach. Heavy gray-black clouds roll menacingly; the Channel, a deep green, is dismantled; the richness of the material spread with a knife, shows the massiveness of the clouds and the wave, and makes the force of the elements particularly tangible. The energy and savagery that emanate from this canvas painted like a drama justify the words of Cézanne, for whom the tide of Courbet comes "from the depths of the ages".

On the contrary, it is an image of serenity offered by the painting of the Symbolist Puvis de Chavanne. Two reclining women dream on the shore, while only one gazes at the sea, combing her magnificent hair; their sculptural body is modestly covered with an antique drape. The mystery of this timeless scene, the attitude of the woman facing us, the gradation from blond ocher to pale pink, twilight orange create a timeless atmosphere that evokes the Arcadia of classical authors.


These three paintings, in their differences and their proximity, shed light on the complexity of the “desire for the shore” in the 19th century.e century. Puvis's Dream, and to a certain extent Turner's landscape, portray a serene sea that invites melancholy meditation. At the opposite, The wave de Courbet emerged from the world of horror and terror which is already that of Brisants at Granville Point d'Huet and that of Raft of the Medusa de Géricault, that is to say of the romantic generation. One trembles there with "a terror caused by the raging sea, the crushing agitation of the waves, the bite of the sharp reefs" (A. CORBIN, The Territory of the Void. The West and the Desire for the Shore (1750-1840), Aubier, 1988, p. 71).

In any case, the attraction for the ocean is to be seen in relation to the fears and repugnances of the dominant classes in the 19th century.e century. Nostalgia for unclean spaces, the need to recharge one's batteries and to purify oneself, the search for the authenticity of a still wild nature: just as the desire for the shore feeds on disgust for the city, so the sea helps to calm the anxieties of an urban bourgeoisie which feels threatened by filth, exhaustion and degeneration. In the opinion of the doctors of the time, the sea even made it possible to fight "against melancholy and spleen ».

"Territories of the void" until the 1840s, havens of purity or poles of violence cherished for the emotions they arouse, the shores filled during the century with spa visitors and wealthy bathers, before becoming from the 1950s -1960 the privileged place of summer vacations for all layers of society.

  • bourgeoisie
  • Hobbies
  • romanticism
  • health
  • symbolism
  • tourism
  • beach
  • Géricault (Théodore)
  • Granville


Alain CORBIN, The Territory of the Void. The West and the Desire for the Shore (1750-1840), Paris, Aubier, 1988.

Alain TAPIE (dir.), Desire for shore; from Granville to Dieppe, the Normandy coast seen by painters between 1820 and 1945, catalog of the exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen (June 1 - August 31, 1994), Caen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paris, RMN, 1994.

To cite this article

Ivan JABLONKA, “The vision of the sea in the XIXe century "

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