By: Allison Hewitt

Civilisation starts with water. Whatever form, wherever it may be, water is the essence of life. The Indus River, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, the earliest civilisations were surrounded by water. Venice and Bruges played pivotal roles during the Renaissance. The list goes on and on. Yes, water not only links together nations but t tells its tale of our near and distant past. It is for this reason that water appears so often in art. Although water may simply be di-hydrogen monoxide on the molecular level; it is both simple and at the same time complex. Water is something that everyone can relate to, an elixir necessary for survival. Whether it be the rain, a river or a cool drink, everyone has some emotional connotation or another relating to water. And yet, water is one of the most difficult things to portray with art. As a result of cultural and religious differences, the ways in which water is used greatly differs throughout the world. One thing could have a certain meaning for one culture and a different meaning for most others

J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)

William Turner. Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). 1840. Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm (35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Water has also been known to have powerful and violent connotations. Although other themes may have been focused more on a particular culture, the sheer power behind water is seemingly universal. It should also be noted, although it may seem obvious, that water does not always have positive connotations. Water is not always that rippling pond when a rock is skipped across. Water or lack thereof can bring hardship for hundreds upon thousands of people.

No one depicts the force and constantly shifting nature of water quite like the Romantic English painter, John Mallord William Turner.

Born in London in 1775, Turner experienced the mental instability and eventual death of his mother during his early years. It was soon after that J. M. W. Turner had begun drawing and painting. In 1789, he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art and studied under Sir Joshua Reynolds, a highly regarded English portraitist. During his lifetime, he frequently travelled throughout Europe; studying art wherever he could. Near the end of his life, in 1851, he was known to have said something along the lines of “the sun is God” directly before his passing. Albeit strange, Turner is still considered the “painter of light.”

If one were to look through any of Turner’s paintings, they would see that he depicts light in a façon similar to no one else. He is widely known to have a fascination with shipwrecks and the “power of the sea” as well as an interest in humanity. It is for these reasons that Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) is a prime example of water within a work of art. At first, the viewer may be in awe of the colours involved in the painting. But, after awhile, the viewer will become more and more aware of the subject of the painting. Shackles appear in the water attached to either deceased or dying slaves. Fish similar to those of Hieronymus Bosch swarm around the former slaves and seem to feast on the heads and other various limbs of the slaves. Gigantic fish creep up next to the fallen slaves as if to attack them and possibly feast on them as well. Seagulls dive from the sky as les petites mains of the slaves wave in the air-- as if it were their dying wish to have that last gasp of air before their death. The waves are also churning, reminiscent of the end of the title “Typhoon Coming On.” Poseidon’s domain appears to be in some kind of chaotic uproar. All the while, the sky seems almost unscathed by the events below; almost peaceful.

It is difficult to imagine that such horrific events can occur, and somehow, the light that Turner casts can make the violence and power of the ocean appear almost docile. This is the way of water. At one particular moment in time, water can prove to be mean and vicious. But, less than a minute later, it can look as if nothing had even occurred. It is the fact that water is constantly shifting its form that makes it an ideal subject of interest.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Sandro Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. 1486. Tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm (67.9 x 109.6 in.). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Water can also have a mysticism and allure of which nothing else can compare. Throughout the world, water seems to be this magical essence of life. Although somewhere deep within the human psyche there may be some personal attraction to water, apart from water consumption being necessary for survival, there is some kind of emotional association with water. What exactly this emotional association is, it varies from person to person. It can be and has been used as a symbol of life and its various cycles for as long as time has been recorded.

Not much seems to be known about the Early Italian Renaissance Painter, Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, otherwise known as Sandro Botticelli. He was born in 1445 in Florence, Italy and became an apprentice goldsmith by the age of fourteen. Botticelli also worked as an assistant for Filippino Lippi and in the studio of Verrocchio. Like most artists well-known artists of his time, Botticelli had a patron. Fortunately for Botticelli, his patrons were the Medicis. At the end of his life, he wished to be buried alongside Simonetta Vespucci. He finally got his wish in 1510.

Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus provides a fine, well-known example of a Venus Anadyomene. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, was born fully developed in the sea. Virtually, Greek and Roman gods seem to be interchangeable, therefore, an assumption could easily be made that when the myth of Aphrodite being born of the sea reached the shores of ancient Rome, the Romans simply changed Aphrodite into Venus and decided to keep the myth as their own. Clearly, something seems “objectable” regarding Venus’s nudity as a woman seems to run at her with a leaping motion and robes to cover up her nudity. Zephyr and his nymph lover, Chloris, blow a gust of wind in her direction as she tries to shield herself in a very suggestive manner while flowers seem to virtually be floating down from the sky.

The entire image appears to be an almost ungodly amount of purity. Not only is Venus born pure as a “virgin” of the water, but the water itself is also a symbol of purity and cleanliness. The alabaster glow of Venus juxtaposed by the large, white shell with her hair windblown remaining utterly perfect adds an element of mysticism to the painting all resulting from a myth involving water. The birth of Venus is just one of many myths throughout the world that include water as a primary source of life. Water is regarded as a purifier and is even used in day to day rituals, although it may be frequently overlooked, such as a daily shower.

Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)

Torii Kiyonaga. Interior of a Bathhouse. 1780s. Polychrome woodblock-print diptych, ink and colour on paper, 38.7 x 51 cm (15.5 x 20.5 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection.
As most anyone who has ever looked at a map would realise, Japan happens to be surrounded by water. Therefore, it can only be assumed that water would play a very important role in the daily lives of the Japanese people. Although most viewers are familiar with Hokusai’s Great Wave Over Kanagawa, water plays many more roles than simply a rather large wave over Kanagawa with the peak of Mount Fuji in the background. Water is a way of life for Japanese people. By now, everyone is familiar with sushi, but after visiting a Japanese restaurant, one can also see that most Japanese dishes are greatly influenced by the always-near ocean.

Born, Sekiguchi Shinsuke, the son of an Edo bookseller, Torii Kiyonaga (鳥居清長) is considered to be one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time. Kiyonaga was taken under his master and head of the Torii School, Torii Kiyomitsu’s, wing. After Torii Kiyomitsu’s sudden death in 1785, Torii Kiyonaga assumed a leadership position in the Torii School. Between 1781 and 1785, Kiyonaga developed a style of bijinga (美人画), or “beautiful women,” that became one of the most commonly used forms in ukiyo-e for over a century. These bijinga all seem to be tall an elegant, participating in some sort of graceful activity and proved to be one of the highlights of his career. After 1875, he continued with the Torii School tradition of production prints of kabuki actors and continued to amuse himself and his peers with original works.

Edgar Degas had, at one time, Interior of a Bathhouse in his possession. It had allegedly been kept in his bedroom, where he could “admire” it. Although he may have admired it for its “spatial dissonances,” of which he tried to recreate in his own work, the main theme remains the idea of a bathing as a social event. What was originally meant to portray the idea of a separation of the sexes, further demonstrates the many cultural uses of water within various societies.

The subject is very clear: nude women are bathing together. Some women are in various stages of undress, with their kimono leaving very little to the imagination, while others are immersed in conversation amongst their friends or wash their infant child. With the lines of the tatami, the viewers’ eyes are lead to some sort of back room in which some lone woman bathes herself. These diagonal lines also guide the viewer towards the head of the proprietor of the bathhouse in a far back room and create an impression of space between figures within the print.

Most Americans would feel some sort of moral objection to such public displays of nudity. But, a bathhouse serves several purposes in Japanese society. First of all, a bathhouse provides a way in which Japanese people can wash themselves. Yes, they may be able to wash themselves at home, but bathhouses also provide a way through which Japanese people can socialise. Although a separation of the sexes occurred, the idea of water as a way to socially connect people remains.

Wu Wei (1459-1508)

Wu Wei. Snow Accumulation on Cold Mountains. Ming Dynasty. Ink on Silk, 156.4cm x 242.6cm (5.13’ x 7.96’). National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.
To most of the Western world, when one imagines East Asian landscape paintings, their eyes turn toward China. Shrouded in mysticism, mountains seem to always hover over the clouds while hapless people go about their daily lives underneath. There also appears to be no definitive time in which these events occur. This is because, according to Confucian beliefs: “He who is in harmony with Nature hits the mark without effort and apprehends the truth without thinking.” Often these Shan Shui (山水), or “Mountain-Water” paintings are based on a “’second reality’ drawn from memory” containing elements such as lakes, bridges, rocks and trees. Shan Shui paintings, like many scroll paintings, are intended to be “read” in which the content of the painting would be absorbed only a little at a time.

The artist, Wu Wei (吳偉) was born in 1459 in the Hubei, Jiangxia (now Wuchang) Province to a scholarly family. At a young age, he became acquainted with the Che School master painter, Dai Jin’s, work and tried his pen and ink styles for himself. After becoming a bit of a celebrity, he moved to Nanking at the age of 17. Eventually, he was called to Kenso Palace and accepted the honourable title of “Painting Champion.”

Typically, Ming Dynasty painting is known to have grave similarities. But, something about Wu Wei seems to make his work different. One fascinating element of the painting, Snow Accumulation on Cold Mountains (寒山積雪, pinyin: Han Shan Ji Xue) is that water is revealed in two forms: snow and it’s liquid, or perhaps ice, form. The snow presents some sort of obstacle for the two travellers as they attempt to cross a bridge. Mountains, rocks and trees loom over the painting, focusing the viewers attention on the white of the snow-capped mountains in the background. The “flying white” technique used by Wu Wei refers to his dry, rapid brush strokes that can be seen in the foliage and somewhat disappear in the background.

Either way, the focus of the painting is the relationship between man and water. Water can sometimes prove to be an obstacle, therefore, bridges are built in order to overcome it. But, man cannot conquer nature. The two figures in the painting appear to be disturbed by the frozen elements and try their best to shield themselves, but nature again wins this battle.


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Mason, Penelope E., and Donald Dinwiddie. "Ukiyo-e Artists: Torii Kiyonaga." History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 284-86.

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum of Fine Arts. Web. <>.

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