Sometimes, in order to derive enjoyment from a particular genre or style of art, you just need the right artist to operate as your gateway, one who appeals to your interests while teaching you how to experience that class of work. It's like a fan of Stanley Kubrick suddenly taking an interest of period pieces after watching Barry Lyndon.
As much as I've always been drawn to landscapes and city views, there was a time when seascapes and port scenes did absolutely nothing for me. I could admire a marine work by Claude Lorrain for its technical quality and historical significance, but it didn't channel any emotion or awe. Standing in front of a Lorraine felt like homework, or trivia, and I could say the same for similiar works by other artists who specialized in the genre.
And then I saw Claude Joseph Vernet’s Morning at the Art Institute of Chicago. This 18th century French painter's style of lighting and composition really resonated with me—and it just so happened to be a seascape. It might as well have depicted the deep recesses of a cavern or a landscape on the moon. In other words, I was indifferent to the subject matter and more interested in Vernet's wonderful use of color and light as well as his method of moving the viewer's eye through the canvas. Who could resist those figures in shadow against that luminant fog? Or the contrast of the warm fire and that haunting, greenish light emitting from the background? Just fantastic! Every time I visit the AIC, I take a few minutes to stop and enjoy his Morning.
Vernet is perhaps more well known for his more harrowing works, such as tremendous The Shipwreck at the National Gallery of Art, but I prefer these contemplative seascapes.
Anyway, after discovering Vernet and absorbing much of his marine paintings, I went back to those old Claude Lorraine pieces and saw something special I hadn’t noticed before—something which gave me a greater appreciation his work and an eagerness to experience them. And then I found myself checking out the seascapes of Friz Hugh Lane, William Hodges, Ivan Aivazovsky, and all the other great marine painters. It’s a fascinating genre which I recommend looking into if you haven’t already. All I needed was dramatic ol’ Vernet to lure me in. Maybe you’ll find a gateway artist of your own.