Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lair of the Sea Serpent

Obliging monsters have always rushed in to fill the gaps in human knowledge. When far lands were still unexplored, and the vast stretches of ocean which divided them were still uncrossed, our imagination peopled those unknown lands with improbable giants whose heads in the tropic sun steamed like puddings, and the untraversed seas were stocked with huge coiling serpents that would rise up from the deeps to seize terrified sailors from the decks and gollop them down whole - and presumably still alive to regret the experience all the more.

We have inherited the depiction of such scenes from previous centuries, and they invariably brim with action and lurid detail. All the more startling, then, to encounter such a monster as portrayed by 19th century artist Elihu Vedder (above). What makes Vedder's sea monster so effective is its sheer matter-of-factness. Not only does the scene offer no trace of stirring action; Vedder actually depicts the glistening serpent calmly at rest, sunning itself unconcernedly among the dunes by the shore. In the distance a sandy peninsular stretches into a calm blue sea, and the sky speaks only of fine, warm weather. Every element in the painting is the antithesis of the way in which such fantasies have traditionally been portrayed, as in the engraving (below) from Konrad Gesner's extensive 16th century catalogue, which cheerfully included such fantastic creatures alongside more commonly-known animals.

It is a further irony that Vedder painted his basking sea serpent in an age when global exploration and enlightened knowledge of the intervening centuries had confined such threatening creatures to the human imagination. Ironic, because even though we know (as Vedder's audience also knew) that such an animal is the product of fantasy, we find ourselves willingly convinced by the existence of Vedder's monster. In contrast, Gesner's writhing horror, if it touches us at all, might raise no more than an amused smile.

Vedder's first painting shown here was in fact a second version painted some thirty five years after his more finished first version (above). It is always interesting to see the ways in which an artist has chosen to alter things between different versions of the same subject, and the first version is notable for its daring composition. Here, the artist has chosen to break a compositional rule and has used the horizon to split the canvas into two equal halves. And not only that, but the top half is just unbroken empty sky. The effect achieved is of great space and distance. Even the clouds lying on the horizon are less defined than in the later version, and we feel that this huge panorama of empty sky, azure sea, and sandy dunes is indeed the realm of the oh-so-believable monster lying before us.

The monster seems peaceful enough. But would we dare to venture past it and take the path between the dunes that leads down to the shore? We are, after all, in an alien realm. It is the realm, not only of the creature itself, but of the artist's own vivid and extraordinary imagination.

Artist: Elihu Vedder
Work: The Lair of the Sea Serpent, 1899
Medium: Oils
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Artist; Elihu Vedder
Work: The Lair of the Sea Serpent, 1864
Medium: Oils
Location: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1 comment:

  1. We talked about this painting in my seminar on Seacoasts this term... very cool to find it here. I actually stumbled onto this (amazing) site because I was searching for the illustrator of the puffin EarthSea series... is there any chance I can contact you by email? You could drop it off as an unpublished comment/message on my website


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