Art Travels

Seven Luminist Seascapes to Make You Want a Beach Vacation

Alexandra Kiely 30 June 2022 min Read

It’s finally summer, and that means it’s time to visit the beach! But if a trip to the lake or the ocean isn’t on your schedule, let these beautiful Luminist seascapes bring the beach to you.

St. Ives Beach Cornwall by William Trost Richards Luminists
William Trost Richards, St. Ives Beach, Cornwall, c. 1890-1899, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, Stanford, CA, USA. 

The Luminists were American landscape painters from the mid-19th century. They were part of the Hudson River School tradition but had a unique focus of their own.

The Luminists painted simple and clear compositions of quiet landscape scenes. They excelled in depicting atmospheric effects, especially involving light, which is often the true star of their paintings. They were particularly fond of painting the water, and their style certainly suited it. Their most minimal paintings consist of little more than water, horizon, and atmosphere, with rarely a person, tree, or building in sight. Even the more detailed ones don’t contain much to distract the viewer from the beauty of water and how light reflects off it. Luminist seascapes truly embody the ideal summer day on the water.

1. Lake George by John Frederick Kensett

Lake George by John Frederick Kensett Luminist
John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, 1869, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Lake George, a popular summer getaway in upstate New York, was a favorite subject for many Luminist painters. John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) was just one of several artists who painted the lake over and over again. This is a very characteristic Luminist seascape since it combines strong, clear shapes with a tangible sense of air and light. You could almost touch the gentle haze that fills the scene.

2. New York Harbor by Francis Augustus Silva

New York Harbor by Francis Augustus Silva Luminist
Francis Augustus Silva, New York Harbor, 1880, New York Historical Society, New York, NY, USA.

Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886) lived and worked near New York City’s harbors back when the city was very different from what it is today. This painting mixes pale blues, yellows, and pinks to create a phenomenal sky. It might remind you of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner’s many beautiful harbor paintings, which often have similar skies. Some Luminists were influenced by Turner, particularly those who spent time in Europe. However, Silva doesn’t seem to have ever traveled abroad and experienced Turner’s work in person.

3. Off the South Shore by William Trost Richards

Off the South Shore by William Trost Richards Luminist
William Trost Richards, Off the South Shore, 1896, Newport Art Museum, Newport, RI, USA. 

This is really what Luminist seascapes are all about – a simple composition cut in half by the horizon, a limited color palette, and a few, clearly-defined waves. There’s no narrative or message; however, the way the light hits the water in the center is all this painting needs to be spectacular. It’s as though the interaction of water and light is itself the subject of the painting.

4. Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford

Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford Luminist
Sanford Robinson Gifford, Manchester Beach, 1865, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. 

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) was one of the most successful Luminist painters. His Manchester Beach shown above – one of only a few Luminist seascapes in museums outside the states – is a great example of the Luminists’ reputation for clarity. Every line and shape is crisp and perfect without overwhelming the composition in too much detail.

5. Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, from Sorrento by William Stanley Haseltine

Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, from Sorrento by William Stanley Haseltine Luminism
William Stanley Haseltine, Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, from Sorrento, c. 1860, private collection. The Athenaeum.

The Luminists may have been American artists, but they didn’t limit themselves to only painting American scenes. Many traveled throughout Europe and painted the many waterways they saw along the journey, from the British Isles to the Mediterranean. It’s easy to imagine yourself in southern Italy when you view this very blue, very tranquil painting.

6. Dawn by Martin Johnson Heade

Dawn by Martin Johnson Heade Luminist
Martin Johnson Heade, Dawn, 1862, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA. 

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) is best known for his many botanical and zoological paintings – scenes of delicate hummingbirds hovering over colorful tropical flowers. However, he was also an accomplished Luminist landscape painter. His Dawn shows an idyllic beach with a lone sailboat in a warm sunrise. This quiet seashore must be the way local fishermen experience it before daylight brings the heat and the crowds.

7. Fishing Party by Fitz Hugh Lane

Fishing Party by Fitz Henry Lane Luminist
Fitz Hugh Lane, Fishing Party, 1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA. 

Most Luminist seascapes are full of sunlight, but the opposite can be equally effective. A small patch of sunset reflecting off the water and disappearing into the dark-blue sky makes this scene by marine painter Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865) really captivating. This painting makes me think about the end of a long summer day on the coast. It shows calmness after the sun has set, the heat has eased, and all the day’s fun has been enjoyed.

Bibliography

1.

Avery, Kevin J, “Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880)”, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

2.

Avery, Kevin J, “John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)”, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 2009. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

3.

Craven, Wayne, American Art: History and Culture, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003, pp. 214-218.

4.

Editors of Avery Galleries, “Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)“, Avery Galleries. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

5.

Editors of Google Arts & Culture “Luminism 1850-1950“, Google Arts & Culture. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

6.

Lewis, Michael J, American Art and Architecture, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. pp. 112-113.

7.

Seiferle, Rebecca & The Art Story Contributors ed. “Luminism Movement Overview and Analysis“, TheArtStory, First published on 15 Oct 2017. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

8.

Zucker, Steven and Beth Harris, “Fitz Henry Lane, Owl’s Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine,” in Smarthistory, December 4, 2015. Accessed 29 Jun 2019.

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