Emil Nolde | Meer mit Abendhimmel und Segelboot (Sea with Evening Sky and Sailing Boat)

Meer mit Abendhimmel und Segelboot is testament to Emil Nolde’s reputation as one of the great watercolourists of the twentieth century. Combining vivid midnight blue with golden yellow and paler hues of orange and violet, Nolde creates a wonderfully atmospheric composition. Like much of the artist’s œuvre, it is underpinned by his innate understanding of colour; while forms are simplified almost to the point of abstraction, the heightened use of colour as a means of expression incites an emotional response from viewers.

'I have always been fascinated by everything primeval and archaic. The wide, tempestuous sea is still in its original state; the wind, the sun, even the starry sky are virtually the same today as they were fifty thousand years ago.'
(Emil Nolde, Jahre der Kämpfe, Berlin, 1934, p. 177)

Fig. 1, Emil Nolde, Rote Wolken, circa 1920s, watercolor on hand-made paper, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © 2021. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence

Nolde turned to watercolour for its intrinsic fluidity - the medium was ideally suited to his interest in capturing a sense of nature’s dynamism. Jeffrey Hoffeld describes the origins of Nolde’s preoccupation with the medium: ‘Working outdoors, under extremely cold conditions, after failing, as [Peter] Selz described it, with a group of paintings, Nolde turned to watercolors, and used pieces of ice to paint with. Traces of ice crystals, formed by the frozen water, can still be seen in several works. We are fortunate to have Nolde’s own words on the subject: “At times I also painted in the freezing evening hours and was glad to see the frozen colors turn into crystal stars and rays on the paper. I loved this collaboration with nature, yes, the whole natural alliance of painter, reality, and picture”’ (J. Hoffeld, Emil Nolde: Expressions in Watercolor, Düsseldorf, 2014). He had consolidated and perfected his proficiency as a watercolourist as early as 1908, spending the rest of his artistic career harnessing the medium to express his inner self.

Fig. 2, Emil Nolde, Abendliches Herbstmeer, 1951, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby’s, New York, November 2015, $2.2 million

From the beginning he was drawn to seascapes and throughout his career he produced mesmerising compositions in both watercolour and oil (figs. 1 & 2). Wherever he settled, whether in Alsen on the Baltic or later in Utenwarf and Seebüll on the North Sea coast, it remained a central preoccupation. As Max Sauerlandt observed: ‘Nolde understands the sea like no other painter before him. He sees it not from the beach or from the boat but as it exists in itself [...] eternally in motion, ever changing, living out its life in and for itself: a divine, self-consuming, primal force that, in its untrammelled freedom, has existed unchanged since the very first day of creation [...]. He has painted the sea in all its permutations, but above all in stormy agitation, its heavy swell transformed into white breakers as it retreats upon itself, beneath heavy, threatening clouds, behind which the autumnal evening sky bleeds in tones of red and deepest orange’ (Max Sauerlandt, Emil Nolde, Munich, 1921, pp. 49-50).

Fig. 3, Caspar David Friedrich, Northern Sea in the Moonlight, 1823-24, oil on canvas, Nátrodní Galerie, Prague

In recent years, literature on Nolde has frequently pointed to the seascapes of nineteenth-century northern European Romanticism as a source of inspiration for the artist, and particularly the work of Caspar David Friedrich (fig. 3). Just as Friedrich proclaimed man’s helplessness against the forces of nature, in the present work Nolde acknowledges the limitations of humanity by adding a boat, rendered in simplified form, surrendering to a riot of colour among the sky and sea. The result is a powerful composition that beautifully exemplifies Nolde’s use of colour and the watercolour medium as an expressive force.