cover image Sounding the Depths

Sounding the Depths

Chronicle Books, Books Inc Marquand, Harold B. Nelson. Chronicle Books, $19.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-87701-598-7

This appealing but brief illustrated survey of American paintings of the sea by Nelson, director of the Long Beach (Calif.) Museum of Art, opens with work that depicts human mastery of nature, and closes with pictures that seem to question whether we can control ourselves, let alone nature's forces. The ``unknown gentleman'' of Mather Brown's 1820 portrait faces the viewer complacently, nautical map in hand, in uncontested supremacy over an ocean in the background. Later 19th-century portraits of ships idealized the harmonious relations of a man-made edifice with an oceanic kingdom. By the turn of the century, realistic painters like Winslow Homer evoked a more tempestuous marine landscape, though American impressionists continued to view the shore as the proper setting for an idyll. Artists of the 20th century, ``more interested in the symbolic possibilities than in literal description of seascape imagery,'' include Eric Fischl, Helen Frankenthaler and Marsden Hartley. Published in conjunction with a traveling exhibit presented by the American Federation of Arts, the book features many paintings from the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. (July)