The first American marine paintings centered on the ports themselves, which were often viewed across the water as if from the deck of a ship. These harbor scenes frequently included ship traffic and illustrated mercantile activities along the wharves, suggesting the prosperity of America's flourishing maritime industry. In ship paintings, a harbor view might indicate the vessel's home port, as in Thomas Chambers' New York Harbor with Pilot Boat "George Washington".
Throughout the nineteenth century, proud ship owners commissioned individual portraits of their commercial vessels and racing yachts. Marine painters became skilled not only at precisely delineating the rigging of sailing ships but also at capturing effects of water and sky. The standard format showed the boat broadside, under full sail or steam, generally with other craft in the distance and perhaps a glimpse of the far shore.
In the mid-nineteenth century, marine painting shifted emphasis from man to nature. No longer interested in illustrations of commerce, artists like John Frederick Kensett and Fitz Henry Lane strove to capture the spiritual qualities of sea and sky. These scenes may include ships and human figures, but the true subject is the mood evoked by the crystalline atmosphere and pervading sense of serenity. Now called luminist works, these paintings indicate a change in the prevailing attitude toward the natural world.
Martin Johnson Heade and Thomas Moran were interested in more naturalistic representations. The unearthly calm of luminist works was replaced by realistic seascapes in which the viewer can almost hear the crashing surf. Winslow Homer added figures to this natural realism and reintroduced the human element to marine painting. His works focus on man's relationship with nature, and he uses the sea to embody nature's power. It is a constant and varied element, depicted both as provider of subsistence and a life-threatening force.
The impressionists favored another aspect of marine painting--that of leisure. Their interest in the sea had more to do with light and color than using a body of water as a dramatic device. Their stylistic methods provided artists with new ways to present intimate aspects of the sea, such as the picturesque coves and seasides dotted with revelers represented by Maurice Prendergast.
Twentieth-century artists experimented with a variety of styles and techniques in their interpretations of the sea. Modernist John Marin captured the ocean's energy with exuberant brushwork and abstract geometric shapes. Mark Rothko used surrealist-inspired biomorphic forms to suggest sea creatures in a primordial marine world. Albert Christ-Janer's lithograph combines the brilliant color of sun, sea, and sky with the rhythmic patterns of foaming waves. Vija Celmins approaches total abstraction in her quiet, meditative ocean views.