Nearly drowning: women and wave imagery

The Wave by Pamela Coleman Smith, 1903. Image via Whitey Museum of American Art.

The Wave by Pamela Coleman Smith, 1903. Image via Whitey Museum of American Art.

At an exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, I saw this lovely, tiny watercolor. The way the women hide their faces, and their bodies blend with the cresting waves, struck a chord with me. Often in paintings using either water or mermaid imagery by men, the women are sexy, confident, sure of themselves. Here was a much more vulnerable image of water nymphs.

This feeling of being overwhelmed is summed up poetically in Anne Sexton’s words:

“The sea is mother-death

and she is a mighty female,

the one who wins,

the one who sucks us all up.”

 

Camille Claudel, The Wave (The Bathers.) 1897. Image via the Detroit Institute of Arts. More info at the Rodin Museum.

Camille Claudel, The Wave (The Bathers.) 1897. Image via the Detroit Institute of Arts. More info at the Rodin Museum.

Visually similar is Camille Claudel’s tiny but intricately carved statue the wave. Claudel had a torrid affair with famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who was also her mentor. She likely experienced this feeling of drowning and being overwhelmed, particularly as her relationship with Rodin fell apart and her art was dismissed by critics. This type of small-scale sculpture was a deliberate move away from Rodin’s large-scale pieces. “The Wave” is carved in green onyx, and shows three women crouched in the water, looking up to see a massive wave about to crest over them.

Dream Land, by Emma Florence Harrison. Image via artmagick.com

Dream Land, by Emma Florence Harrison. Image via artmagick.com

Another lovely yet deeply melancholy image of a woman and waves is by illustrator Emma Florence Harrison, an English book illustrator. Her image of woman giving herself over the wave, and perhaps to despair, may have accompanied the poem Dream Land by Christina Rossetti. Here is part of that poem:

She left the rosy morn,
She left the fields of corn,
For twilight cold and lorn
         And water springs.
Through sleep, as through a veil,
She sees the sky look pale,
And hears the nightingale
         That sadly sings.

 

 

For further reading:

The Anne Sexton quote: Mermaids: Sirens of the Sea by Kerry Colburn.

On Camille Claudel: Camille Claudel, A Life by Odile Ayral-Clause.

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