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Diving into the transformative power of the sea at PEM

The Salem museum examines 200 years of artists capturing the beauty, violence and poetry of the sea in American life. Visitors are transported across time and water through paintings by artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer, Kay WalkingStick and Amy Sherald.

Amy Sherald, official portrait artist to First Lady Michelle Obama, offers something we don’t always see in museums — black people on a beach. Sherald’s 2019 painting Precious jewels by the sea offers a contemporary twist on marine painting while depicting four Black teenagers in bathing suits, the deep blue horizon beyond. Two boys stand tall with girls seated on their shoulders. Sherald describes her motivation to make “images of things that we normally do but we don’t get to see in spaces like museums. Like black people going to the beach. . . So it’s really just about creating American narratives about American people— while critiquing it at the same time.”

Guests in the gallery on opening weekend of In American Waters. KATHY TARANTOLA/PEM

This summer, visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum will see that marine painting is so much more than ship portraits.  In American Waters, combines art history, marine history, and even neuroscience as well as a range of artists and artistic expressions to create a more inclusive vision of American marine painting and American art. 

“We are casting the net more broadly and incorporating works that are clearly infused with maritime themes, which don’t necessarily depict a portrait of a ship of a particular moment in time, but evoke the maritime experience in different ways,” says Dan Finamore, PEM’s Associate Director – Exhibitions and The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History. 

Michele Felice Cornè (1752-1845). Ship America on the Grand Banks, about 1800. Oil on canvas. 39 3/4 x 56 inches (100.965 x 142.24 cm). Gift of Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield, 1953

Founded in 1799 by the East India Marine Society, the Salem museum developed one of the nation’s first and foremost maritime collections. The works gathered for this exhibition, from America’s early days to the contemporary era, convey powerful origin stories and everyday scenes. Horizons transport us to the sea as a real and imaginative space. The horizon, whether in the realist portrayal by John Frederick Kensett or the modernist abstraction of Norman Lewis, forms a singular point of reference that can orient or disorient us and foster a wide range of emotions. 

Studying brain function can tell us a lot about how we perceive and interpret a work of art, including seascapes. Curious about what parts of a seascape draw the greatest amount of people’s attention and whether there are consistent patterns of viewing behavior, the PEM team collaborated with specialists at Harvard University. The resulting findings are available in a digital interactive in the exhibition’s galleries. 

In her 1928 work, Wave, Night, Georgia O’Keeffe reimagined her encounter of a wave at night on York Beach, Maine. The artist employs her modern approach to spatial abstraction and to the nature of horizons, disorienting the viewer, who might feel simultaneously immersed in the space and distanced from it. 

Co-organized with Crystal Bridges of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the exhibition offers a diverse range of modern and historical artists including Norman Rockwell, Hale Woodruff, Paul Cadmus, Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, Valerie Hegarty, Stuart Davis, and many others. These paintings shape our perceptions of the sea and engage our emotions, whether depicting the open ocean or waves crashing on shore, a ship in the midst of battle, or a yacht in racing splendor. 

Charles Sheeler. Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting, 1922. Oil on canvas. 20 x 24 1/16 inches (50.8 x 61.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Margaretta S. Hinchman, 1955 1955-96-9. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Today the sea is on the minds of Americans, in part, because of sea-level rise and the impact of associated climate events on coastal communities and beyond. This uniting issue offers us a fresh perspective, one that is both universal and an opportunity to come up with creative solutions. These paintings emphasize our individual and collective experience, and deepen our understanding of the sea as a symbol of national opportunity and invention.

Charles Herbert Woodbury. Mid-Ocean, 1894. Oil on canvas. 49 x 72 in. (124 x 183 cm). Courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum

In American Waters is on view at PEM now through October 3, 2021. To learn more, visit Tune into the museum’s podcast, the PEMcast, to hear more about In American Waters and PEM’s Climate + Environment initiative. Available on all podcasting apps. PEM is hosting an ongoing series of special exhibitions, installations, and programs about our changing relationship with the natural world that encourage reflection, inspire conversation, and spark action. Learn more at and #PEMClimate.


Banner image: Kay WalkingStick. New Hampshire Coast, 2020. Oil on panel. 40 x 80 in. Courtesy of the artist ©Kay WalkingStick. Courtesy of the Artist. Photography by Rich Schultz

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.