“In American Waters”: Sea of art captures diverse maritime experiences

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A museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is taking a deep dive into maritime life, providing an oceanic framework for discussions around diversity and inclusion in America. 

“In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, is an expansive feast for the eyes, featuring underrepresented artists alongside household names.

Why We Wrote This

For many, the beach conjures images of summer frivolity. But ocean stories, like those told via a new art exhibition, can reveal deeper truths about the American experience.

Visitors are challenged to think deeply about the cultural and historical significance of the American waters and how they have resonated for various peoples – far beyond the yachting set – during the past 250 years and more. Works by Native American, African American, and female artists are included, with galleries featuring images of immigration and slavery, as well as lighter fare. The variety of works is meant to generate conversation and perhaps shake things up a bit. 

“The interpretation of the sea in American art is much broader than people have ever recognized,” says Daniel Finamore, the Peabody Essex Museum’s associate director of exhibitions and curator of maritime art and history. “It’s my hope that ‘In American Waters’ will explode the confines of the genre so far.”

Salem, Mass.

As locked-down Americans emerge from pandemic weariness and dream of summer beach excursions, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is embracing the ocean as a metaphor for the American experience.  

A new exhibition, “In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting,” is more expansive and diverse than just a feast for the eyes – and the featured artists are not just the names one might associate with maritime art.

While some billowing sails and wooden hulls are present here, the curators set out to demonstrate that a nautical collection could feature more than just ship portraits. The variety of works included is meant to generate conversation and perhaps shake things up a bit. 

Why We Wrote This

For many, the beach conjures images of summer frivolity. But ocean stories, like those told via a new art exhibition, can reveal deeper truths about the American experience.

“The interpretation of the sea in American art is much broader than people have ever recognized,” says Daniel Finamore, associate director of exhibitions and curator of maritime art and history at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). “It’s my hope that ‘In American Waters’ will explode the confines of the genre so far.”

Different visions of the sea

Assisting Mr. Finamore and the exhibition’s team of curators in that goal are artists who consider the theme from different angles. Currents of sensitivity, inclusivity, and originality run throughout the exhibition – fed by works such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s modern and mystical “Wave, Night” (1928) and a contemporary rendering of teenagers at the beach, “Precious jewels by the sea” (2019), by Amy Sherald, who painted former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait. The exhibition also navigates directly into such atypical areas as the sea’s transformative significance for immigrants and enslaved people.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting” (1922) by Charles Sheeler, oil on canvas.

One of the show’s early visitors was pleasantly surprised by its depth and breadth. “I was blown away by the inclusion of female, Black, and Indigenous artists,” says Sharon Reidbord of Danvers, Massachusetts, on opening day in late May. “The slave-trade piece was also interesting, as was the structure of the show.” 

The diversity of artists and styles is intentional, meant to prompt contemporary conversation, says PEM associate curator Sarah Chasse. Among the 90 works on display are those by Norman Rockwell, Hale Woodruff, Paul Cadmus, Jacob Lawrence, Valerie Hegarty, and Stuart Davis.

Also included is “New Hampshire Coast,” by Kay WalkingStick, one of only a few Native American female artists focused on marine paintings. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Ms. WalkingStick says she feels “deeply moved to be part of such an important show that combines American artists from two-and-a-half centuries.” On opening day, she praised the curators for the care they took in presenting and labeling her work, which included listing the native name of the coastal location she painted, “Pizagategok,” which means “black river.” 



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