Meditation by the Sea
Unidentified artist, American, mid-19th century
34.61 x 49.85 cm (13 5/8 x 19 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Not On View
Meditation by the Sea has fascinated scholars of folk art for its unique combination of naivety and sophistication. As did many self-taught artists, the painting’s creator derived inspiration from the popular press. The source for the composition has been identified as a wood engraving by an artist using the pseudonym Porte-Crayon that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on September 21, 1860. The print was accompanied by a written account of “A Summer in New England” and a recent visit to the “tumultuous spirit of the waters” at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. The author of the article, David H. Strother, a Virginian and member of the Union army, was later identified as the artist and illustrator Porte-Crayon himself.
The carefully delineated curling waves in the print are echoed by the expressive water in the painting. The painter has emphasized a sense of infinity by depicting the waves as though they are carved out of wood and are gradually whittled down to a fine point towards the otherworldly rocks on the horizon. A familiarity with one-point perspective is evident in the rendering of the receding cliff, yet the artist skews the rest of the view to suggest the vastness of the space stretching into the distance. The single brooding figure in the foreground and the tiny silhouettes far in the distance endow the painting with a surreal sense of scale and mood.
Solitary figures contemplating the ocean occur frequently in works by the Hudson River landscape painters, especially Fitz Henry Lane [48.448] and John Frederick Kensett. Such figures were a defining feature of their luminist paintings, as were pronounced horizon lines and a particular quality of light. This unknown artist likely had access to such works, or may have consulted similar images in prints or drawing books. But the mood of this picture, enhanced by the expressive distortions of scale and by the idiosyncratic drawing, is unique. The immensity of the horizon, which dwarfs the figure, and the ominous branch devoid of leaves that seems to hang like the sword of Damocles over the cliff create an impression of foreboding. Meditation by the Sea was probably painted near the outbreak of the Civil War (based on the date of the engraving that inspired it). The figure’s confrontation with the omnipotence of nature and God underscores a sense of dread in contemplating the possible outcome of a devastating conflict.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
1943, with J. B. Neumann, New York; 1943, sold by J. B. Neumann to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1945, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 13, 1945)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865