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In American Waters PEMcast: Our Connection to the Sea

Large ocean waves crashing to the shore below a gray sky.
William Trost Richards, Along the Shore,1903, oil on canvas, 39 3/16 × 78 1/2 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2009.1.

In American Waters, a new exhibition co-created by Austen Barron Bailly, chief curator at Crystal Bridges and Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), is currently on view at PEM in Salem, Massachusetts. After its run, it will be on view at Crystal Bridges beginning November 6, 2021.


PEMcast producer Dinah Cardin speaks with Director of Trails and Grounds Clay Bakker in Eleven.
PEMcast producer Dinah Cardin speaks with Director of Trails and Grounds Clay Bakker in Eleven.

Earlier this summer, PEMcast producer Dinah Cardin traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas to visit Crystal Bridges and learn more about the area from Bailly and Director of Trails and Grounds Clay Bakker. While on-site at the museum, Cardin interviewed several visitors, asking them about their experiences with the sea. The responses were varied and wide-ranging as folks talked about their experiences on transatlantic ships, the Gulf of Mexico, and trips to the beach. Others discussed their relationships with freshwater lakes and rivers, given that Northwest Arkansas is surrounded by them.

While Arkansas is a landlocked state, rather than sitting on a bay out to the Atlantic Ocean like Salem, Massachusetts, the waters that flow through the Natural State, not to mention Crystal Bridges, are worth highlighting. As Bailly says, “One of the things we’re really excited to play up is the ways in which the rivers, creeks, and waterways in this region all flow into our major rivers like the Mississippi and on to the Gulf, which connects to the sea, which connects to the Atlantic [Ocean] and beyond. What I really hope is that people will take a pause and recognize their connectivity to something far away and vast; that maybe through looking at the paintings in this exhibition and thinking about American art and history, they might see that they actually have a connection to a place like Salem through the art.”

Listen to the full PEMcast episode of Cardin’s trip to Crystal Bridges here.

In American Waters consists of about 90 works created in the past 200 years and including a range of diverse modern and contemporary artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Kay WalkingStick, Amy Sherald, and many others, whose paintings explore marine themes and portray seascapes and scenes of our connection with the sea.

Unlike a landscape of mountains, a seascape presents a unique challenge—the scene is always in motion. Take William Trost Richards’s Along the Shore, for example. In this popular painting, Richards captured the energy and fluidity of breaking waves. A few details accent the scene (such as rocks in the foreground and a distant ship), but the power of water takes center stage.

Of In American Waters, Cardin notes, “This exhibition includes some of the great classic scenes of nineteenth-century marine art, such as merchant vessels, yachts, and naval vessels, but it reaches well beyond that into parts of American painting that people often don’t associate with seascapes or marine art. The show doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the nation. It allows us to see through the lens of American painting, experiences of the Middle Passage and the legacies of slavery, what it means to enter this country through steerage or arrive at a new life on Ellis Island.”

You can read more about Cardin’s journey to Crystal Bridges on the Connected blog here.


In American Waters opens at Crystal Bridges on November 6, 2021.