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Return to the Sea: In American Waters Opens at Peabody Essex Museum

Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor by Fitz Henry Lane
Fitz Henry Lane, Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851, oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 47 x 4 1/2 in. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of the Estate of Stephen Wheatland, 1987, M18639. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton.

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

In preparation of the exhibition’s opening at PEM, a centuries-old museum in a town brimming with American history, Dinah Cardin, content producer of the museum’s podcast PEMcast, set out to learn more about the sea and the environment. In Episode 21, part 2 of PEMcast, Cardin interviews Mary Malloy, a classically trained musician and performer who taught American maritime history and culture at The Sea Semester program out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts; artist Alexis Rockman, whose exhibition Shipwrecks explores paintings of wrecked ships as a warning to our planet; and finally Finamore, who shares about the universal kinesthetic experience of the sea, shared by us all.

“With this exhibition, we are trying to…cast the net more broadly and incorporate works that are clearly infused with maritime themes which don’t necessarily depict a portrait of a ship…but to evoke the maritime experience in different ways,” said Finamore.

It’s interesting to note that while the town of Salem sits on the bank of a harbor leading out to the Atlantic Ocean, Crystal Bridges sits in the city of Bentonville, landlocked in the state of Arkansas, but nurtured by surrounding lakes and rivers. The residents of both places share very different lives and relationships with the sea.

Four African-American teenagers at the beach with two girls sitting on the shoulders of two boys
Amy Sherald, Precious jewels by the sea, 2019, oil on canvas, 120 in. × 108 in. × 2 1/2 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

In American Waters shows how artists have been inspired to capture the beauty, violence, poetry, and transformative power of the sea in American life for over 200 years. Visitors will be transported across time and water on the wave of a diverse range of modern and historical artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Amy Sherald, Kay WalkingStick, Norman Rockwell, Hale Woodruff, Paul Cadmus, Thomas Hart Benton, Winslow Homer, Jacob Lawrence, Valerie Hegarty, Stuart Davis, and many more.

One of the works in the show will be Amy Sherald’s Precious jewels by the sea (2019) in the Crystal Bridges collection. This massive painting depicts four teenagers enjoying a day at the beach. In the exhibition’s catalog, Sherald noted that she likes “painting things we don’t always get to see in museums. It’s about creating American narratives.”

Listen to the full PEMcast episode here:


In American Waters is open at Peabody Essex Museum now through October 3, 2021. It opens at Crystal Bridges on November 6.