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Frame by Frame

A meditation of sand, surf, and melancholy

Museum of Fine Arts

Perhaps the most famous anonymous painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, this hypnotic image was painted sometime in the early 1860s, as the Civil War was brewing.

“Meditation by the Sea,” as it has been titled, hangs in a gallery dedicated to folk art in the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing. It is as full of salty, atmospheric light as it is of melancholy, which it seems to discharge from its every pore, like the sweat of the psychologically stuck.

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The sea heaves, but that stylishly stilted figure on the shore, backed up against a cliff, seems frozen. He’s both out of scale and out of place, dwarfed by the encroaching elements.

Although no one knows who painted it, scholars have determined that the composition was based on a wood engraving that accompanied an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on Sept. 21, 1860.

The article, by a Virginian member of the Union Army named David H. Strother (who also did the accompanying engraving, under a pseudonym), was an account of “A Summer in New England.” According to the MFA’s website, the piece included descriptions of “the tumultuous spirit of the waters” at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard.

Fascinating as all this is, none of it accounts for the painting’s nerve-jangling mood.

Although the motif of a lone figure surveying the immensity of nature was, by 1860, a cliché of Romanticism, “Meditation by the Sea” doesn’t feel dated. In fact, it feels eerily prescient — not only of the Civil War (it could easily have been included, alongside works by Martin Johnson Heade and Frederic Church, in the new “The Civil War and American Art” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) but of more modern artistic visions.

In its combination of technical fastidiousness and eccentric vision it anticipates the Frenchman Henri Rousseau. The perspectival rush of the receding beach, meanwhile, calls to mind the nightmare visions of Edvard Munch.

But there are no Art Nouveau swirls here: It’s all obsessively particular rocks and carefully carved ripples in the water.

Note, too, the many other hallucinatory details: The dead tree overhanging the cliff. The wrack line of seaweed and detritus on the beach. The puff of spray around the larger rock in the sea. The strange, indeterminate shapes on the horizon. The two distant figures on the beach. And then, over on the right, the blinding reflection of the sun off the water.

Even as all these particulars feel indispensable to the whole, they also seem strangely — splendidly — isolated.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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