A Painting a Day: Bocklin's In the Sea (1883)

The painting of the day: a work by a largely forgotten painter who was once very important to the late 19th century, Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), and his painting In The Sea (1883). When I briefly lived and worked in Chicago, I would walk across the street once a week to the Art Institute (free on Tuesdays back then) to see my favorite paintings. This was one of them, a painting I had never heard of before by a painter who existed as a mere footnote (another painting, The Isle of the Dead, inspired Rachmaninov's famous symphonic poem). Something about this painting captured my interest and made me rush back to it each time like a treasured acquaintance. The postcard I found of it in the gift shop still stares down at me when I write.

So what makes this picture--a very odd one, even an ugly one to some--so unique? For one, it treats a mythological subject in the least dignified manner I can think of. The Pre-Raphaelites, famous at this period, were known for sumptuous, sensual images of antiquity, celebrating their favorite models in poses of longing and rapture. Not so Bocklin. In this scene, which depicts various mermaids and tritons, no one looks ethereal or even sexual. They look exhausted, annoyed, mischievous, and argumentative. Even the ocean itself looks more like a pond than the vast, immortal sea of legend. The entire picture looks cramped and claustrophobic, as if the creatures are saying "morals tell all these grand stories about us--but this is REALLY what it's like!"

Note the mermaids hanging onto the triton like a piece of driftwood, while he tries to sing--or protest--in vain. He might be plucking a tone of ancient wonder, yet it's comically foiled by the mermaid pulling him down, not in a sexually enticing way, but more in a "please carry me, I'm tired!" manner. Another mermaid does a backstroke beside him, looking halfway interested in his song--but perhaps more interested in using him as a dock. In the distance, two other creatures are swimming toward him with a conch shell, perhaps to add to the festivities. But again, we imagine a loud, boisterous tune to be the result--a triton's drinking song, perhaps. Yet despite the comedic setting, the painting is quite beautiful, with the reflection capturing the shimmering, unearthly quality of the scene in a different light. Almost as if Bocklin is saying "however sordid the characters and their deeds are, they can be transformed by the poets."