SALEM — Is there a rule that says the first thing you should see in a show called “In American Waters” is, well, water? If so, check the box: The Peabody Essex Museum’s summertime sprawler opens with a luminous curl of wave at the cusp of breaking, the warm glow of sunset at its lip. It’s obligatory, but not in the way you’d expect. The painting, a big, broad canvas by William Trost Richards, is empty of life — no boats or bathers, no harbors or wharves. It was painted in 1903, but the scene is unstuck in time. It could be millennia ago. It could be right now.
Whatever the scene meant to Richards, it’s the ambiguity that matters to “In American Waters,” an exhibition with ambitions of gently eroding expectations around marine painting, a colonial convention that lionized conquest and commerce and the seafaring that made it happen. In a show that’s as notable for omissions as inclusions — no Winslow Homer? In a show of American painting centered on the sea? — “In American Waters” wears its iconoclastic mission in ways both explicit and subtle.
It’s probably not coincidence that Richards’s thundering seascape resonates most closely with a similarly turbulent, enigmatic shore by the Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick, five galleries and dozens of works deeper in. Whatever the intention, the curators skirt obvious declarations — that these coasts belonged to generations of people for thousands of years before European incursions — with an ending (spoiler alert) that’s a deliberate whimper, not a bang: The bleak, dark moodiness of Marsden Hartley’s “Storm Down Pine Point Way, Old Orchard Beach,” from 1941-43, of an overcast beachscape at night.
In fact, the two paintings that make the show’s case most powerfully aren’t even here: A pair of massive works by the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman, maritime scenes displayed for much of the past 18 months in the great hall of New York’s Metropolitan Museum (to be fair, they’re huge). In each, Monkman builds characters and scenes from an array of European history painting into epic tableaux that re-center Indigenous people in North American waters. At the Peabody Essex, “In American Waters” co-curators Austen Barron Bailey and Daniel Finamore lead off their catalog with a direct comparison between Monkman’s work and the career of Edward Moran, a leading marine painter of the 19th century whose career was invested with an “exceptionalist, nationalist, indeed imperialist character.”
But their show elides polemic, instead embracing a breadth of representation that both recasts the genre and muddies the idea of a thesis at all. Those weary of exhibitions that feel like lectures on social justice might be relieved. But those applauding the sharp turn toward topical relevance in most museums these days won’t be disappointed. “In American Waters” covers all the standards (though artists like Fitz Henry Lane, whose vertiginous tall ships and misty-bright skies always make standards feel fresh). And the show itself is assembled under practical rubrics rather than narrative chapters (one gallery is called “Just Offshore,” another “In Port”).
Even so, “In American Waters” subtly builds marginalized views into the self-important saga of American seafaring — one that includes the sea’s role not just in warfare and trade, but in immigration, labor, exploitation, and the Middle Passage. The show’s broad view is both inclusive and inconclusive, leaving parallel histories to rub up against each other. They’re uncomfortable and surprising, because they should be.
And, there are moments. Pivot left from Richards’s thundering sea and you’ll see a little Arthur Dove, cool and luminous, with a pale moon looming over a curling ruckus of waves. In the next room, a far sightline pairs Dove with Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Wave, Night,” from 1928, a forlorn, near-abstract scene of dark waters under black skies.
In a room called “Horizons,” “Wave, Night” joins a set of works designed to topple expectations at the outset: Richard Diebenkorn’s angular all-but-abstract 1971 seascape, “Ocean Park #48,” features an array of sharp intersecting lines and pale washes. Kerry James Marshall’s “Baptist,” from 1992, is chaotic and menacing, a metaphor for the conversion of enslaved people to Christianity after the ocean journey that delivered them to bondage. Beside it, a small 1975 work by Norman Lewis called “Untitled (Red)” — Lewis was a merchant seaman, the show taught me — presents knots of crimson, pale blue and black, the violent churn of being Black and at sea.
Not far away, another canvas clamors to be seen: John Frederick Kensett’s “Sunset on the Sea,” from 1872, a retina-searing sunset with a crisp horizon line bisecting gentle waves and fiery skies. Even without its gallery mates, the work seemed maudlin, its blithe embrace of the sublime off on its own. But it also poses an important question about co-existent visions of universal subjects, and the hazy notions of right and wrong.
And that, I think, is what “In American Waters” is about. It lays plain American hubris and puts it alongside all the devastation yielded by the country’s exclusions. Scenes of vast privilege rub up against their anathema: Julius LeBlanc Stewart’s “On the Yacht ‘Namouna,’ Venice,” a pretty post-Impressionist painting from 1890 aboard New York newspaper mogul’s James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s opulent steam yacht, shares the wall with Jan Matulka’s “View from Ship,” 1932, a frank, primary-colored, and near-cubist view of backbreaking work on a fishing trawler.
A gallery nominally about portraiture, both of ships (yes, a thing) and people, includes a 1680 self-portrait of a man named Thomas Smith (who was perhaps a naval officer) with the pillage and ruin of an Anglo-Dutch assault on a North African Barbary fort through the window — the violent, trans-Atlantic quest for dominance that ruled the early colonial era, compacted in frame within a frame.
“In American Waters” isn’t always so subtle. A section called “Voyages” — simple enough to be complicated — embraces the topic’s breadth to dig deeper into the country’s short history, shore to shore. Let’s start with the obligatory: A young nation’s quest to become a global naval power, depicted with off-the-rack visual grandiloquence, is evident in Titian Ramsay Peale’s romantic view of Native islanders living their stoic, traditional lives in the South Pacific in the 1840s. Or in William Bradford’s scene of a noble crew of American seamen marooned in northern ice floes on their quest for discovery. It all feels like a target to be knocked down — and that’s exactly what “In American Water” does. A small, idyllic piece by an unknown artist captures Navassa, an uninhabited Caribbean island claimed by the United States in 1856 to harvest guano — which it did, largely by using forced labor from neighboring islands.
In the next room, the counterpoint rises most sharply with a small image of a schooner negotiating heavy seas. It’s the kind of thing the artist, a well-known ship portraitist named William G. Yorke, would have done dozens of times in his career. This one was different. Painted in the 1880s, the work’s title is “Slave-Yacht Wanderer,” with a renegade ship that ferried Africans to American shores long after importing enslaved people was outlawed. It’s a scene of the Middle Passage at its most harrowing: Africans waiting on deck to be thrown overboard to the sharks as the ship tried to lighten its load, with a government patrol bearing down.
Its gallery mates are pictures of cramped steerage-class in unnamed vessels heavy with immigrants, pursuing a fresh start and new life. Immigrants and enslaved people had hardship in common — discriminated against, looked down on, denied basic rights — though not remotely to the same degree. Still, “In American Waters” casts forward through those generations-old fractures to arrive at this point: A nation steeped in difference brought on by trauma, still grappling with its fallout.
Can it really be so bleak? Yes and no. The exhibition’s final passage is dominated by a towering work by Amy Sherald, of two Black couples, the women sitting on men’s shoulders under a cloud-tufted sky at the beach. It’s a hypnotic image — colors bright and primary, sands warm, sky blue, faces placid, unruffled, sure.
The picture is an invitation, a prompt to see whatever you might see. Here’s mine: The ocean, finally, is a site of pleasure, despite its deep complications (or maybe because of them). After all the depths of darkness, “In American Waters” leaves us emerging, with dignity, into the light.
IN AMERICAN WATERS
At Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Oct. 3. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org