In his travel journal Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811), Chateaubriand writes that “nights spent amidst the waves on a storm-battered vessel are not barren as regards the soul,” a sentiment amply demonstrated by the soulful works in “Storms and Shipwrecks” at the Musée de la Vie romantique.1 The exhibition contains over sixty works, including seascapes by Joseph Vernet, J. M. W. Turner, Théodore Gudin, Eugène Isabey, Eugène Boudin, and Gustave Courbet, as well as aquarelles and prints. Two of the exhibition’s four rooms provide a hushed musical background of storm-inspired music by Beethoven, Liszt, Rossini, and Wagner. 

Many of the works on display depict overwhelming natural forces: vast seas, massive black clouds, and churning waves laying waste to hapless victims in puny vessels. At times stoic, fighting to survive, grieving, and, of course, dead, the human figures are ravaged by elemental powers beyond their control, a common theme in Romantic painting. Perhaps the most extreme of these “man versus nature” works is Louis Garneray’s Le Naufragé (ca. 1800), which shows a single sailor struggling against heaving waves, clinging to a piece of wreckage with one arm and imploring Heaven with the other.

Louis Garneray, Le Naufragé, ca. 1800, Oil on canvas, Musée des beaux-arts de Brest, Brest.

Several works will remind viewers of the most famous of all French shipwreck paintings, Géricault’s 1818–19 work Le Radeau de la Méduse (“The Raft of the Medusa”), a study for which is included in the show. Enormously controversial due to its graphic depiction of suffering and death, Le Radeau initially had few defenders. One admirer was Louis XVIII, who, realizing that he was standing in front of something special, told Géricault that vous venez de faire un naufrage qui n’en est pas un pour vous—“you’ve painted a shipwreck, but it’s not a shipwreck for you.” Another curious note: Eugène Delacroix, the standard-bearer of French Romantic painting, was Géricault’s model for one of the raft’s passengers.

While marine painting was certainly not invented by the Romantics—we are gently reminded of that fact by the placement of Rubens’ 1618 Jonas jeté à l’eau at the entrance—it was with the Naufrage paintings by Vernet (1750) and Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (third quarter of the eighteenth century), with their combination of foundering ships, wild seas, and desolate onshore survivors, that the genre came into its own. We soon see, however, a gradual move away from Vernet’s cause-and-effect style towards a subtler approach with the striking Brisants de Grandville (ca. 1852) pictures by Paul Huet and his son René-Paul showing waves crashing against the rocks of that Normandy shore—with neither wreckage nor survivors. Eugène Boudin’s 1886 painting Un Grain (“a squall”) contains a cobalt sky behind a pair of fishing boats struggling against an unpleasant purplish-gray sea. A fine example of a squall about to break is seen in Paul Huet’s nightmarish aquarelle Le Grain (1847) showing a small rowing boat soon to be swallowed up by an inky black front. Like Géricault’s L’Epave (1818–19) (“The Wreck”), where a murky sea and sky merge, it leaves the viewer uneasy.

Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, Naufrage, third quarter of the eighteenth cenutury, Oil on canvas, Musée de Dieppe, Dieppe. Photo: Bertrand Legros. 

Then there are the “salvage” pictures, such as Louis-Philippe Crépin’s Sauvetage de la gabare l’Alouette (1822) and Ferdinand Victor Perrot’s Sauvetage d’un bateau de pêche (1835), where crews brave the waves to rescue survivors. Their tone is more hopeful, despite the usual combination of dangerous waters and bodies on shore. Further on, we see works showing the aftermath of tragedy—Ary Scheffer’s somewhat mawkish La Famille du marin (1836), with a tearful mother and child looking out to a tempestuous sea, Feyen-Perrin’s Après la tempête (before 1865), with its nude, face-down corpse sprawled on a quiet beach, and Evariste Luminais’ La Veuve (ca. 1865). Finally, the improbable L’Epave (1873) by Jules-Arsène Garnier shows no wreck at all and very little sea, instead depicting a comely redhaired noyée, legs modestly crossed at the ankles, being discovered by two locals, one in a brightly feathered headpiece, the other with painted bone through his nose, both looking like they would prefer to be elsewhere.

François Nicolas Feyen-Perrin, Après la tempête, before 1865, Pastel on paper pasted on canvas,  Musée des Beaux-arts de Rennes, Rennes. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais / Adélaïde Beaudoin.

A star of the exhibition is Eugène Isabey, whose dreamlike, Turner-esque Le Naufrage (nineteenth century) shows a split-apart ship with writhing bodies in the foreground under a darkened sky. His lean ink-and-watercolor Barque par gros temps (ca. 1828) shows a ship with its bow uplifted and its sailors pulling against huge waves, while La tempête - Naufrage (1835) depicts a drenched tangle of masts and canvas blown onto the rocks—with a tiny forlorn foot protruding from beneath the wreckage. 

Also not to be missed are Victor Hugo’s spooky ink-and-wash drawings, some etched by Fortuné Louis Méaulle for Hugo’s 1866 sea novel Les travailleurs de la mer, and Théodore Gudin’s little study for his Coup de vent à Sidi-Ferruch (1830) showing a diminutive Algerian fort lit against a tormented background of swaying ships in the nearby bay. The brooding foreground is dominated by a palm bent to an angle by the wind.

  1.   “Storms and Shipwrecks: From Vernet to Courbet” opened at Musée de la Vie romantique, Paris, on May 19 and remains on view until September 12, 2021.

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