Seascapes were never treated as a separate subject for artists until 17th century Dutch painters developed landscape as a genre that would contend with the portraiture and allegory of the past. Although these seascapes had strong ties to the economic and social climate of the time, they gradually began to explore purely compositional aspects rather than concrete associations. This is especially apparent in the tranquil scenes, such as Hendrick Dubbels’ A Dutch Yacht and Other Vessels, where the distant horizon, delicate clouds, and transparent sails capture an indescribable yet thoroughly immediate atmosphere. Rough, choppy waves perhaps had the familiar appeal of exhibiting an artist’s skill and ability to convey drama, but these still waters moved towards a more subtle notion of light, color, and composition.
Though Courbet always thought of himself as a rebel in terms of painting, his Calm Sea picks up on the Dutch idea of focusing on pure composition over content. Using the relatively new method of plein air painting, he applied his signature textured brushstroke to form clouds that take up the majority of the canvas.
The specialization that came as a result of the flourishing Dutch economy was present, to some extent, in the way art was conceived and distributed. Now, there were many more reasonably wealthy patrons, and the art market sought to satisfy all of those different tastes. The most successful painters were specialists in still-life, landscape, and other areas, and often belonged to that particular workshop. The Dutch were at the forefront of exploration and colonization, so their ships were a source of national pride and prosperity. A rich merchant might have commissioned a painting that portrayed his ship or harbor, and these places were often recognizable.
Turner and calm waters seem contradictory terms, but his Fighting Temeraire exhibits the quiet intensity associated with the calm after a storm. The water may be still, but the wild orange and red brushstrokes have come to symbolize the passing of the British Naval era. While the Dutch started to give landscape a new meaning, Turner takes it to its most emotionally charged level, and gives his brushstrokes full power to evoke the indescribable.