To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.

(William Shakespeare)

From the first morning splash, breaking the mirror of the lake, to the soothing lullaby of a stream – our senses love to be immersed in water. We live on “The Blue Planet” – named thus because of the vast expanse of liquid water on its surface; yet water remains this mysterious element, populated by unknown creatures. We know that water is not actually blue, but as water filters the red part of the light spectrum, we see it as blue or green. In paintings, red or orange hues appear on water - artists make us see all the colours.

No liquid water has been detected anywhere else in our solar system, or anywhere else in the entire interstellar space; water makes planet Earth, and us, unique.

Unsurprisingly, water holds a number of powerful symbolic meanings: purity and cleansing from sin; divine life (in Christianity); tranquillity; tempest and tumultuous energy; renewal, birth, fertility; flowing water suggests change and the unavoidable passage of time, our spiritual journeys, metamorphosis and more.

In the beginning, there was only water, believed the ancient Egyptians, who left us representations of rivers and marshes and the gods associated with them. They had a hieroglyph to designate “canal”, which interestingly also means “love” and “Nile”.

Too much, too violent water, can be bad for us, although the rainbow on the horizon, the link between Earth and Heaven, also made of water, reminds us of the promise of “no more deluges”.

Painters and poets were fascinated by water and the creatures that inhabit it, real or imaginary. Among the multitude of nymphs populating the Greek mythology, there were the daughters of Oceanus, the nymphs of the Mediterranean Sea (Nereides) and the Naiades, the nymphs of freshwater – rivers, wells, lakes, brooks. Nymphs were portrayed as beautiful young women, just out of adolescence, living in the watery abodes and sharing some of their attributes. We see Naiades on Greek vases and Roman mosaics, and later providing inspiration to Pre-Raphaelites. Attracted by mortals, they remain in their watery prison, occasionally attempting to persuade a handsome young man to join them. John William Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) is one of the most remarkable depictions of such encounters.

The method and the metaphor

Water is an indispensable component of painting material (not only aquarelle but also oil, tempera, fresco, aquatint, suminagashi) and a nearly constant element featured in works of art. From basic streaks and zigzags to dramatic color contrasts, artists have used numerous techniques to illustrate the transparency and treachery of this element.

Characterized by contradictory features like movement and stillness, purity and transparency, tranquillity and ferociousness, water has always been a challenge and a delight for artists. Poets and painters alike have always been attracted to the image of water: tranquil lakes act as mirrors, reflecting the images of trees and buildings on its shore as an upside-down replica. A turbulent ocean roars and moves in unexpected and fascinating waves. A river, a waterfall, provides a point of focus to a landscape, and painters have often added a bridge, some flora, a boat, a goddess, or a splash on the surface.

The dramatic composition of Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (1556) is one of a series inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andromeda’s mother had boasted that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the sea nymphs, a claim that attracted the wrath of Neptune. He sent a sea monster to destroy the kingdom. Andromeda was chained to a rock as a sacrifice, but Perseus arrives just in time to slay the monster and save her life. Here, the emotional tension is achieved by the representation of water: it is dark and threatening, the small white crests frothing around the sea monster, drawing attention to the danger, and at Andromeda’s feet, where the curls of Medusa turned into coral. In contrast, in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485) the water is calm and happy, the waves of white little ripples dancing like so many small tame birds.

The troubled waters in Turner’s seascapes are so different from the threatening sea encircling Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818) off the coast of Senegal. Born and bred on an island, Turner was attentive to the moods of the sea. His seascapes show furious, cyclonic waves, sometimes with a hopeless boat at the center – a symbol of human fragility in front of the forces of nature. Snow, wind, low-lying heavy clouds, slate grey skies feature prominently in Turner’s work throughout the first half of the 19th century, with titles such as Storm at Sea, Sea Scape with Storm Coming On, Ship in a Storm.

The Great Wave off Kanawaga, created by Hokusai Katsushika around 1831 is the best known in the series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and one of the best-known works of Japanese art in the West. Mount Fuji can just be seen on the horizon, solid and permanent, while the foreground is dominated by the tall wave about to crash. The three boats and the men in them could be crushed by the curly claws of the giant wave, which seems to symbolize the weakness of humans facing unstoppable forces of nature – a frequent theme in Western art as well.

With the painting that gave the movement its name, Impressions Sunrise (1874) Monet offered a new way of looking at water, color and light. The moment captured here, the reflection of the sun and boats on the water is more important than the subject matter. There are fragments of abstract treatment in the painting, a technique that he continued to use in his work, despite criticism. When surrounded by his Water-lilies (1916) we feel immersed in the pond that fills his later canvases. We can taste the humidity in the air and feel the effect of the light hitting the water, creating waves of color, abstract shapes. Other impressionists enjoyed spending time near and on the water, and the artistic possibilities it provided: Monet, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Seurat, Signac have painted rivers, lakes and the sea, with or without people and boats.

From the calm waters of Canaletto to Hockney’s swimming pools, artists remained intrigued and inspired by the shapes and colors displayed when light meets the water. And the element will always provide artists with the vocabulary needed to tell our story.