See the SeaSee the Sea

See the Sea

See the Sea
May, 21, 2020


See the Sea

“But what sea?…Says yes, then no, then no again.”

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Sea”

From the dawn of humanity, the sea, encompassing more than three-quarters of the globe, has drawn us, formed us, shaped us, inspired us. It is the subject of artworks from nearly every culture around the world, which have deified the forces thought to control its tides and honored its power to both create empires and level cities. While most of us continue to take shelter in the Valley of the Sun, enjoy a virtual visit to the seaside, with works of art, and so much more, designed to let your imagination sail away.

In the Galleries

Enjoy a virtual stroll through the galleries featuring a range of works from across all areas of the PhxArt collection that capture our passion for the sea.

Gustave Courbet, Beach at Dieppe (La playa de Dieppe), 1865-1870, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Murray

Franklin De Haven, Untitled (Seascape) (Sin título [Marina]), 1892, watercolor, Gift of Governor and Mrs. Bruce Babbitt

Learn More

Deep Looking | Island Nation

For this week’s deep looking activity, we visit Japan, an island nation composed of nearly 7,000 islands, of which only a little more than 6% are occupied. As a maritime nation, the ocean plays a major influence on the diet, economy, lifestyle, art, and culture of Japan. We’ve asked Janet Baker, PhD, our curator of Asian art, to examine three sea-themed Japanese woodblock prints from the Museum’s collection. Keep scrolling to learn more.

Emperor and Empress (late 19th– and early 20th century), Japan

Woodblock prints were created in Japan to meet the popular demand of the merchant middle class that desired images of famous places, traditional celebrations, and popular theatre actors and courtesans. In this print, we see the empress and emperor seated in a formal manner in full ceremonial regalia, yet the background suggests the natural environment of Japan rather than an imperial palace or residence. As an island nation, Japan consists of several larger islands and many small ones, creating mountainous landscapes wreathed by harbors and inlets. Water-focused activities, whether commercial or leisurely, fill the days of all classes of society, even the ruling class.

Moon Capital (Ariko No Naishi) from the Series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon,” (Tsuki Hyaku Sugata) (1886) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

The popularity of woodblock prints reached a crescendo in the 19th century, when many artists created major series of works on a broad theme, such as “One Hundred Views of the Moon.” By focusing their work this way, artists allowed themselves great liberty to include all manner of figures, seasons, festivals, and moods. The theme of the lonely courtesan dates back centuries in Japan, yet here, Yoshitoshi creates a dramatic composition that combines a close-up study of the beautiful kimono with a realistic rendering of gentle ocean waves lapping around a boat. The woman holds a biwa, a traditional stringed instrument that originated in China or Persia and is known for its strong yet plaintive voice. She is likely pining for a lost lover or otherwise reflecting a melancholic mood, as expressed by her pose and face.

Scene from Ama (The Pearl Diver), from the Series “One Hundred Noh Plays” (1922-1925) by Kogyo Tsukioka.

This Japanese print artist focused almost solely on the stories and scenes of Japan’s Noh theatre, the slow-moving and elegant form of drama that captures myths and folklore of many centuries. With little or no backdrop, Noh plays emphasize emotions expressed by a formal repertoire of gestures and movements. There is little dialogue, as the audience is expected to be familiar with the stories being presented. A tiny orchestra plays percussive music to complement the drama. Here, the figure of a pearl diver, a profession almost exclusively of women in Japan, evokes the robust energy of a woman who has  endured the harsh circumstances of life and the unpredictable wind and weather of coastal Japan.

Sea-Inspired: Fashion

Romantic notions of the sea, from the creatures that dwell within its depths to the ships that traverse the globe, have influenced our collective imaginations throughout human history. This is perhaps most apparent in the inspiration that fashion designers and makers have drawn from ocean-faring life, integrating color palettes, organic forms, marine materials, and even the uniforms of mariners into their works. In 2012, Phoenix Art Museum explored these themes in its exhibition The Sea, curated by Dennita Sewell, the Museum’s Dorrance Curator Emerita of Fashion Design, which surveyed everything from historical seaside dress to contemporary haute couture, sailor-inspired loungewear to pearl-encrusted evening gowns. Explore a few examples here that illustrate fashion’s enduring love affair with idyllic visions of the sea.

Dress (Spring 2013), by Monique Lhuillier

Black and Green Silk Chiffon Evening Dress in a Turtle Pattern (1973) by Pauline Trigere

Coat (2005) by Prada

Norman Norell, Mermaid evening dress, 1960-1972. Silk jersey embroidered with sequins. Gift of Mrs. Kelly Ellman

Norman Norell, Mermaid evening dress, 1960-1972. Silk jersey embroidered with sequins. Gift of Mrs. Kelly Ellman.

Mabel Hay Barrows, Novelty paper fan of British sailors, 1888. Cardboard, ribbon. Gift of Miss Carolann Smurthwaite.

Teal Gown with Long Train (c. 1974) by Giorgio di Sant’Angelo

PhxArt Recommends

Recommended Reading

Fiction: The Water Dancer | Ta-Nehisi Coates

When Hiram Walker, born into slavery, narrowly escapes drowning, he discovers a mysterious power within, a gift from the mother taken from him and one that will inspire him along a journey to freedom.

Fiction: The Shipping News | Annie Proulx

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel follows Quoyle and his family as they attempt to begin a new life and heal lingering wounds on the rocky coast of Newfoundland.

Fiction: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea | Jules Verne

Travel with Professor Aronnax and Captain Nemo as they uncover the mysteries of the deep in one of the most beloved books by Verne, still considered the master of adventure.

Fiction: The Awakening | Kate Chopin

At the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, Edna falls in love, and nothing is ever the same again in this 19th-century tale of feminine awakening and the consequences of failing to live up to social expectations.

Poetry: Pidgin Eye | Joe Balaz

This collection, spanning nearly four decades, features the poems of Native Hawaiian writer Joe Balaz, who writes in English and Pidgin about the complicated beauty of the people and land of Hawaii.

Recommended Listening

From Frank Ocean to Van Morrison, Bob Dylan to Boyz II Men , this playlist offers a little something for anyone looking to escape to the sea during quarantine, if only in our imaginations.

Recommended Viewing

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

2004 | Comedy-Drama

Visually beautiful and unapologetically wry, this 2004 film by Wes Anderson tracks the eponymous oceanographer on an Ahabian quest to hunt the jaguar shark who killed his partner.

A Plastic Ocean

2016 | Documentary

This feature-length documentary investigates the toll that our culture of disposability in the Plastic Age has wrought upon Earth’s oceans and sea-life.

Life of Pi

2012 | Drama

When a storm sinks the freighter upon which a zookeeper’s family and their animals travel, Pi Patel and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must find a path to survival together in a lifeboat on the open sea.

Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue)

1988 | Foreign

One of the most popular French films of the 1980s, The Big Blue features compelling underwater photography as it tells the story of two champion free divers and the risks they take to explore the ocean.

The Lighthouse

2019 | Thriller

Confined by a storm that buffets an island off the coast of New England, lighthouse keepers Ephraim and Thomas must battle the elements—and their own increasingly unstable psyches.

Retail Therapy

Make a splash in your #quarantinelife with these exciting water-inspired gifts from The Museum Store.


If you’re craving a good travel adventure but, like us, are staying home to stay safe, make sure to tune in to next week’s PhxArt Virtual Visit, which might just help ease that wanderlust.

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