Emil Nolde

The Sea B


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Not on display

Emil Nolde 1867–1956
Original title
Meer B
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 737 × 1010 mm
frame: 897 × 1172 × 62 mm
Purchased 1966

Display caption

This is one of a series of seascapes (labelled A-F) which Nolde painted while staying on the island of Sylt in northern Germany. His characteristically expressive brushwork and heightened colour suggest the seething turbulence of the sea. In his memoirs, he recalled ‘I wanted to see the sea again in all its wild greatness. Thunderclouds came driven by hail-storms – lightning flashed into the sea … I had finished or almost finished six seascapes, whose paint was still wet, working on them in a state close to ecstasy.’

Gallery label, July 2012

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on canvas and is unvarnished. The thick plain weave canvas has thirteen warp threads and ten weft threads per square centimetre. The warp threads are composed of flax, and the weft threads are hemp. The top and bottom edges of the canvas have a selvedge edge. The canvas appears to be unsized, which is unusual, and has a distinctive artist-applied orange priming that is thick and uneven and applied to the front face only, leaving the tacking edges bare. No preparatory drawing is visible. The priming contains mars orange (a synthetic iron oxide pigment), zinc oxide white, and calcium carbonate.

There are pinholes in the four corners of the painting which suggests the painting was initially pinned to a support for painting before it was stretched. The oil paint is well bound with a dry paste consistency that causes the paint to appear fairly matte. It has been applied thickly and in multiple layers with a relatively wide brush, working wet-in-wet. There are areas in the sky where the orange preparatory layer shows through the paint, giving a warm ruddy glow to the edges of the dark clouds and the yellow sky in the upper left quadrant. The seawater in the foreground is painted more thickly than the rest, with peaks of white impasted paint.

The artist has used a palette of bright colours, which are applied pure or mixed wet-in-wet on the canvas. Prussian blue, ultramarine, and cadmium orange paints have been identified. The paints have been extended with chalk and barium sulphate, which are common extender pigments. Zinc soaps have also been identified, possibly present as a paint additive: metal soaps are often included in modern oil paint formulations to make paint with a buttery consistency. Alternatively, the zinc soaps may have migrated from the ground layer.

The painting is currently in good condition, however the dark blue and bright orange paints are slightly water sensitive. Water sensitivity is commonly encountered in unvarnished twentieth century oil paintings, and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project).

Further reading
Werner Haftmann, Emil Nolde: The Forbidden Pictures, London, 1965.

Judith Lee and Lucia Bay
July 2016

Research on this work was undertaken as part of the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

Catalogue entry

Emil Nolde 1867-1953

T00865 The Sea B 1930

Inscribed 'Nolde' b.r. and 'Emil Nolde: Meer B.' on the stretcher
Oil on canvas, 29 x 39 3/4 (73.5 x 101)
Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art (Special Grant-in-Aid) 1966
Prov: Max Kruss, Berlin (purchased from the artist); his widow, Frau Kruss, Berlin; with Marlborough Fine Art, London
Exh: XXVIII Biennale, Venice, June-October 1956 (German pavilion, 5) as 'Mare 1915-20'; Emil Nolde: Gedächtnisausstellung, Kunsthalle, Kiel, December 1956-January 1957 (15); Gedächtnisausstellung Emil Nolde, Kunstverein, Hamburg, April-June 1957 (110, repr.) with the date 1915-17; Museum Folkwang, Essen, June-September 1957 (110, repr.); Haus der Kunst, Munich, September-December 1957 (110, repr.); Art in Revolt, Marlborough Fine Art, London, October-November 1959 (24, repr.); Le Fauvisme français et les Debuts de l'Expressionnisme allemand, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, January-March 1966 (249, repr.); Der französische Fauvismus und der deutsche Frühexpressionismus, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March-May 1966 (249, repr.); Emil Nolde, Marlborough Fine Art, London, June-July 1966 (1, repr. in colour)
Lit: Emil Nolde, Reisen - Ächtung - Befreiung 1919-1946 (Cologne 1967), pp.100-110
Repr: The Tate Gallery Diary 1969 (London 1968), n.p. in colour; The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.115

This picture has been exhibited since 1956 with the dates 1915-17 or 1915-20, but Dr M. Urban has pointed out that it is in fact one of six seascapes entitled 'Sea A-F' which were painted in 1930 on the island of Sylt. Nolde went to stay there in the summer of 1930 while his new house at Seebüll was being repaired and found accommodation at Kampen with a window overlooking the North Sea.

As he recorded in his memoirs (op. cit.): 'I had a wish to live and paint as alone as possible, only observing, and in particular I wanted to see the sea once again, in all its wild greatness ...

'Months went by, that would have tried many men. Time passed quite quickly. I had remained almost completely alone. Autumn had arrived, the days grew shorter. Thunderclouds came, driven by hail-storms - lightning flashed into the sea ...

'I had finished or almost finished six seascapes, whose paint was still wet, working on them in a state close to ecstasy and contemplating and assessing them over and over again.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.565-6, reproduced p.565

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