Nothing says bliss like sitting by the seashore to soak up the sun, enjoy the breeze, feel the pull of ocean waves, and admire the seascape. Something about the great blue sea can be so naturally inspiring for artists.
But painting the ocean isn’t as easy and breezy as it looks. In fact, it’s quite a challenge for many artists. For one, the sea has quite a dual nature. She’s a moody subject, especially in art. Sometimes she’s calm and serene and other times utterly terrifying.
From Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa to Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave, here are some of the most famous ocean paintings that capture the many faces of the sea.
Bird's eye view of sea coast (1515) Leonardo da Vinci
It’s pretty common knowledge now that the ocean covers almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface. Just take a look at a world map or globe, and you’ll see. But before satellite and digital mapping, we had geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci to show, not just tell, us so. Though not wholly accurate, it’s amazing how he captured an aerial perspective of part of the earth’s geography.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) Rembrandt
Fun fact: this is Rembrandt’s one and only seascape painting—and it’s been missing since 1990!
This painting depicts a scene from the biblical tale of Jesus Christ calming a stormy sea—specifically, the one from the Gospel of Mark. The expressions and body language of Christ’s disciples—plus a signature cameo of Rembrandt himself—are a testament to Rembrandt’s artistic prowess. He adeptly shows the terror and chaos of being on a ship in a storm. Everyone is terrified save for Christ. A lost masterpiece by the greatest artist of the Dutch Golden Age.
The Monk by the Sea (1810) Caspar David Friedrich
After a period of restoration, Friedrich's famous monk his once more on view at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany
You may know Caspar David Friedrich by another famous painting, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog—a masterpiece of the Romantic era.
Here’s an equally contemplative composition of a stark and boundless view of sea and sky. It’s one of the most profound images of the ocean I’ve ever seen.
At the time it was exhibited, this painting was considered unconventional. The painting is divided only by horizon lines. Nothing else obscures the background. In person, it can feel overwhelmingly lonely but also spiritually enlightening. You see man against the greatness of god. The monk is a tiny figure before the grandness of nature. We are a but small drop in the ocean of life.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) Katsushika Hokusai
Also known as Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura); on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, U.S.
Fun fact: This is not a painting of a tsunami. Scientists argued that it’s actually a rogue wave. Tsunamis break nearer to the shore. The great wave here is already breaking into deep water.
This Japanese woodblock print is the first painting in Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series. The Great Wave is a masterclass in composition. A large wave spirals into a crescent and frames Mount Fuji in the background.
The Great Wave almost singlehandedly popularized the use of Prussian blue in Japan’s Edo era—an illegal move on Hokusai’s part. How did he get his hands on an imported pigment from Europe when Japan had closed itself off from the world? It was probably smuggled.
The Fighting Temeraire (1839) Joseph Mallord William Turner
On view at the National Gallery, London, U.K.
Its longer title, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, makes you realize how emotional this piece really is. Beloved English artist JMW Turner juxtaposes old glory with new technology. An end of an era symbolized by the setting sun.
A fading, ghostlike warship is being pulled by a steam-powered tugboat to its final resting place. In reality, the Temeraire won the Battle of Trafalgar. Yet in the end, she was decommissioned, towed along the Thames, broken apart, and sold in bits and pieces.
Fun fact: This painting makes a cameo in the 2012 James Bond film, Skyfall.
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842) Joseph Mallord William Turner
On view at the Tate Gallery, London, U.K.
It’s said that JMW Turner had himself tied to the mast of a ship amidst a storm so he could see how to paint one. Not true, but it’s amazing how Turner grasped the nature of storm and sea. In contrast to the painting above where the sea is calm, we see wreckage about to happen.
You can feel the wrath of the elements as a flurrying snow storm overpowers a steam boat. Against all odds and at the center of it all, humanity must persevere through the stormy sea.
Clearing Up, Coast of Sicily (1847) Andreas Achenbach
On view at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD, U.S.
There’s nothing like the way German Romantic painters capture the ocean. Andreas Achenbach, one of the founders of the Düsseldorf School, is best known for his moody seascapes. And in this one, there’s a lot of drama.
The sunset pokes through rainclouds to illuminate a tragic scene below. You can almost hear the waves crashing on the rocky coast. The foreground implies a shipwreck out of view. See if you can spot the driftwood and tattered flag.
The Ninth Wave (1850) Ivan Aivazovsky
On view at The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Nobody paints the temperamental sea like Ivan Aivazovsky. The famous and prolific Russian Romantic painter mastered marinist art. He did over 6,000 paintings, most of which were seascapes.
The Ninth Wave is Ivan Aivazovsky’s most popular painting. I love his use of color and light. According to legend, the ninth wave is the most powerful one to come after a storm. Despite the looming danger, there’s still hope in a sunrise.
Becalmed off Halfway Rock (1860) Fitz Henry Lane
On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, U.S.
Fitz Henry Lane—also known as Fitz Hugh Lane—pioneered the Luminism style of American landscape painting. It highlights the effects of light much like the Impressionists, however with more attention to detail and hiding of brushstrokes. The effect? A soft, hazy glow over reflective and calm waters.
Though the scene here is calm, below the surface is nothing but. Halfway Rock, at the center of the painting, is an important marker for seafarers—it serves as a navigational aid to avoid underwater rock formations.
La Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (1865) Claude Monet
On view at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth TX, U.S.
This painting doesn’t feel like the Claude Monet we all know. Still, it shows his understanding of the impression of light. We see the obscured sun’s light shining through the clouds. It’s also a nice glimpse of life on the shores near his hometown of Le Havre.
Impression, Sunrise (1872) Claude Monet
On view at the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France
Here’s the infamous painting that gave birth to the term Impressionism. It’s one of the earliest paintings by Claude Monet and the one that would pave his legacy as an artist.
Claude Monet painted many scenes from his hometown, the port city of Le Havre but this is perhaps the most famous. This hazy and misty painting depicts the port of Le Havre at sunrise. Monet sought to paint the port at varying times of the day and from many vantage points.
You can barely make sky from sea, water from the mist. There’s something so calming about this painting and yet it was harshly critiqued when it was exhibited in Paris in 1874. The art critic Louis Leroy negatively coined the term to describe an “Exhibition of Impressionists.” Today, Impression, Sunrise is considered the first piece of Impressionist art.
The Rainbow (1873) Ivan Aivazovsky
If you can’t understand why Ivan Aivazovsky is one of the greatest seascape painters of all time, this painting should show you.
In the distance, a sailing ship succumbs to the stormy sea. Survivors struggle to stay afloat in a small rowboat. Despite the chaos, the storm creates a rainbow that frames the scene.
Ivan Aivazovsky’s seascape paintings tell a story. His use of a soft, pastel color palette to paint an angry ocean proves his mastery of seascape painting. You can feel a whole range of emotions just by looking at it long enough. Awe, fear, despair, maybe even seasickness, and then finally, hope.
The Wave (1879) Pierre-Auguste Renoir
On view at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis TN, U.S.
Honorable mention, one of my personal favorite seascape paintings of all time. I just love the way Impressionist artists painted waves. Of course I had to mention Pierre-August Renoir.
This is a series of seascapes that show his experimental side. He would spend summers in Watgemont, France just to paint waves on the shore—sometimes even in their midst.
This is like staring right at a wave crashing down on you. In Renoir’s painting, he captures the fleeting nature of waves with his expert use of a palette knife.
The Fog Warning (1885) Winslow Homer
On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA, U.S.
Together with The Herring Net and Breezing Up, this was painted to depict the hard lives of fishermen in Maine. It’s considered to be one of Homer’s best works.
If you can’t tell, we love paintings that tell us stories and make us think. This one shows the dilemma of a fisherman far away from his mother ship. The waves are getting choppy and there’s a scary fog on the horizon. The fish clearly weighs him down. Does he risk the journey back? Or does he sacrifice his work to survive?
The Gulf Stream (1899) Winslow Homer
On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, U.S.
The gulf stream refers to a current in the Atlantic ocean, which Homer crossed many times. It can instill a fear of the ocean in anyone. There are many ways to interpret this. Just look at the man’s expression. Is he searching for hope or is he surrendering to the inevitable?
We had to mention these two paintings by Winslow Homer. This was painted shortly after his father died. It’s said to represent his grief and the fragility of human life. It also sheds light on the reality of black people in America during the slave trade.
Walk on the Beach (1909) Joaquin Sorolla
On view at the Sorolla Museum, Madrid, Spain
Let’s end this list with a light-hearted stroll along the beach. It’s one of the most popular paintings by Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla. He painted his wife Clotilde and eldest daughter Maria while walking along a beach in Valencia.
It reminds us of a blissful, sunny summer day in the Mediterranean. But Sorolla’s technique is also something to marvel at.
He adapts some Impressionistic techniques here. Look at the brush strokes he uses to paint soft waves. Notice the near seamlessness between land and sea. Though white seems to be the dominant color, he actually mixed it using other colors, capturing the reflection of sunlight on fabrics.
What are your favorite famous ocean paintings?
Which of the paintings that we mentioned above did you love the most? Did one of your favorite artists or seascape paintings show up on this list? Learned something new about art today? Sound off in the comments below!
Discover more about famous artists, paintings, and more. Just head to the Inspiration section of the Zen Art blog.
- MEET THE AUTHOR-
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.