Sea gods and monsters, shipwrecks, and other dramatic Dutch and British prints from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries are now resplendently on view in Gallery 213a. Northern Renaissance and Baroque artists witnessed a golden age of seafaring expansion, and duly produced a cornucopia of art on paper littered with fantastical sea beasts that they imagined might be encountered, if one were only to travel far enough. As the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1532 map of the world suggests, most of the globe was covered by water, and it was those unexplored areas that might well contain leviathan whales, or perhaps even the proverbial dragon. These tales were the stuff of ancient mythology, and artists continued to tell the same stories with added verve of an ever more real threat across the ocean in the New World. By the nineteenth century, these versatile sea creatures could also express political statements rather than serving merely as excuses for imperiling classical nudes.
Among the works on view is a 1601 engraving by Jan Saenredam after a drawing by Hendrick Goltzius, that envisions the story of the princess Andromeda as a traditional Renaissance nude. The beautifully bare Andromeda has been chained to a bone-strewn rock as food for a ravening sea beast. Just then, Perseus swoops in on Pegasus to do battle with the creature and save the damsel from distress. Andromeda’s nudity is accentuated by her flowing locks, blown dramatically by the wind and waves; she is a comely tidbit for monster or man. Saenredam’s early training was in cartography, and his rendition of Goltzius’s sea beast resembles the hybrid stock characters that populate dangerous uncharted waters of Holbein and other sixteenth-century artists.
Finally, a later adopter of sea creature fright tactics, printmaker James Gillray’s raucous political satires often included biblical and nautical references. This dynamically hand-colored etching from 1806 bears a lengthy secondary title, which may have clarified the subject matter for contemporaries: “Representing an Empty-Barrel tossed out to amuse the great Leviathan John-Bull, in order to divert him from instantly laying violent hands upon the new Coalition Packet.” The monstrous whale with “John Bull” horns symbolizes the British nation (as personified by the heroic and comedic archetype, John Bull), who attacks a packet boat steered by an unpopular new political group.
Mapping the globe or a nation’s ever-changing political vistas evidently each had their own intricate difficulties. These prints will only be on view for a few months, and then, like the irregular and often cruel tides the artists immortalized, they must come back down. Check back in April for a new Gillray etching; its glorious handcoloring only allows it to stay up for half as long as a work in black and white.
After Hans Holbein. Typus Cosmographicus Universalis, 1532, reproduced 1889. Lithograph on paper. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.
Jan Saenredam after Hendrick Goltzius. Andromeda, 1601. Engraving on cream laid paper. Elizabeth Hammond Stickney Collection.
James Gillray. A Tub for the Whale!, published March 14, 1806. Handcolored etching and aquatint on cream wove paper. Gift of Thomas F. Furness in memory of William McCallin McKee.