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This art exhibition explores American identity and life by the sea


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As we all know, the sea can be the source of terrible storms or summer escapes.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH-Boston explores how it has also inspired American art.

It's part of our Canvas series.

Jared Bowen: Painters throughout American history have always been drawn to the glittering, sun-dappled sea. They have been seduced by sumptuous sunsets, majestic masts and still waters, not to mention the spitting, tempestuous opposite that also attracts artists.

Daniel Finamore, Peabody Essex Museum: They wander the beach, and they look out to sea and it's an imaginative place. And so they think about how they can generate that kind of feeling in their paintings.

Jared Bowen: Like the valor of an unyielding naval commander, the solitude of abandonment, or the feeling of just traveling by ferry on a gray day.

Daniel Finamore: It's a very mundane scene. But it is steeped in sort of the maritime environment, with the mist, with the thick air, but it isn't a grand story of a fabulous voyage that was world-changing in any respect.

Jared Bowen: That's the point of In American Waters, a show that longtime maritime art curator Dan Finamore has been wanting to do for years, featuring work that, well, rocks the boat when it comes to perspectives in marine painting.

Daniel Finamore: Kay WalkingStick is an artist who has always visited the New England coast her summers, and only recently began to paint it.

And it shows the breakwater, but then it's overlain by her design of a Native American basket motif. So, she is simultaneously sort of looking at her own experience of the sea, while also declaring this coastline as indigenous land.

Jared Bowen: Here, you will also find a seascape abstracted, immigrants anticipating hope on the horizon and a departure from that denizen of the desert, Georgia O'Keeffe.

Daniel Finamore: What she saw at night, in particular, is the beach before her, the far distant horizon with a lighthouse, the wave rolling at her, and the vacant space that is everything where the narrative should be.

Jared Bowen: It's a fitting show for the Peabody Essex, the nation's oldest continuously operating museum. It was founded in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1799, just blocks away from what was then one of the world's most thriving ports.

Today, in this exhibition, the romance of the sea often washes away in Norman Lewis' roiling sense of the ocean's fury and in this rare depiction of a slave ship.

Daniel Finamore: The ship Wanderer is chased by an anti-slaving squadron off the coast of Africa. But it arrived safely in South Carolina, and all of the survivors were dispersed throughout the landscape. The crew was brought up on charges, and they were all acquitted by a Charleston jury.

Sarah Chasse, Peabody Essex Museum: I think it's this wonderful exploration of American identity through the lens of the sea.

Jared Bowen: Sarah Chasse is one of the show's co-curators, her specialty, portraits, where the sea floods the background, as it does in this Gilbert Stuart image of George Washington painted as a gift for Alexander Hamilton, or in this painting of the Roman goddess Diana by way of Maine.

I'm just mesmerized by this portrait.

Sarah Chasse: It is definitely a mesmerizing portrait. It's also very mysterious.

This is by the artist Marguerite Zorach. The rowboat is full of crustaceans, starfish, crabs, lobsters, sort of her bounty as Diana the huntress.

It's really interesting to see the woman artists whose works we have included, the ways that they are expanding the boundaries of what a maritime painting is and can be.

Daniel Finamore: This painting by Amy Sherald, who created first lady Michelle Obama's official portrait, is about the Americanness of a sunny day at the beach.

Sarah Chasse: I think there's so many layers of complexity in terms of America's Black experiences with the beach, and segregated beaches in the past. So it's just really, really poignant.

Jared Bowen: And pointed, as we also find in the show's final work. It's by early 20th century artist Marsden Hartley, a Maine native who frequented the Peabody Essex Museum and here renders the Maine coast at night.

Daniel Finamore: It is simultaneously calming and threatening. We wanted to end the show with that kind of a message, that the sea is many things, something to be wary of, to take note of, and has an impact on everybody's life.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Salem, Massachusetts.

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