Watery Circulations in the Early Modern World

This session explores how early modern water enabled and resisted the circulation of objects, makers, and ideas. Recent work across the humanities has highlighted the role of water and, in particular, the sea in history. So-called blue humanities are foregrounding the world’s water in and of itself, not as an alleged void opposed to dry, inhabited land, but as spaces with their own qualities and potentialities essential to human history. Art and architectural historians are beginning to explore the material side of aquatic worlds and the critical implications of thinking in terms of wet and dry. Work about water offers the possibility to look beyond established racist and speciesist hierarchies towards more ecological and socially just practices.

We have brought together papers focused on the early modern period that engage with water through case studies and theoretical analysis, and which include the circulation of knowledge, objects, and makers. From landscape painting to river cities, from swimming to drawing at sea, and from shells and their representations to waterways in the longue durée, the session interrogates ecological histories of fresh and salt water and their entanglements with gender, imperialism, and colonialism.   

Session convenors: 

Elsje van Kessel, University of St Andrews 

Joanna Woodall, The Courtauld


Joost Keizer, University of Groningen 

Liquid Land 

The early modern Dutch land was liquid, malleable. It was also makeable. Dutch men – their gender fleshed out in contemporary sources – dried inland bodies of water at a speed contemporary mapmakers could not keep up with. These efforts rendered the Dutch environment human-made; pushed natural, female-gendered processes of shaping to the margins of the landscape; and contrasted a male solidity with a female liquidity. 

In this paper, I will argue that Dutch landscape painting, which emerged as an independent genre in the opening decades of the seventeenth century, acknowledged the rift between human-madeness and natural processes of becoming that were visible in Dutch landscapes. Artists had to revise old and treasured ideas about nature and about art’s age-old capacity to separate nature from human making. Art began to be repositioned in relation to the natural world. And it began to return to question of what it meant for humans to make something.

This paper argues that the repositioning happened both at the level of subject, with a whole array of artists turning their attention to old, liquid parts of Holland, and at the level of technique, as artists began mobilizing liquid means of making, “floating” (drijven) wet paint through wet paint. The paper’s purchase is to understand the shift from solid to liquid art practices not just as a change in technique, but also as a change in the gender of painting, a conversion that asks for a recalibration of art historical methods.

Marta Watters, University of Missouri-Columbia 

The Dutch, the Ocean, and a Nautilus Cup in a 17th-Century Still Life 

A recurrent object featured within the ubiquitous Dutch still life is the shell of the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), an aquatic cephalopod native to the South Pacific. As early as 1605 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had dominated multiple islands within the Indonesian archipelago, placing the Dutch within reach of empty nautilus shells. Unoccupied shells were collected and taken back to northern Europe where they were framed in ornate metal mounts to form opulent cups. The transmuted nautilus shell is mirrored by the fluidity of the ocean as a vehicle for shells’ movement and the ecosystem of the living nautilus.  

This discussion takes as a case study the painting Vanitas Still Life with a Nautilus Cup and Musk Apple on Golden Chain by prolific Haarlem artist Pieter Claesz (1597/8-1660), now in Münster (LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur). A nautilus cup is the focal point of Claesz’s painting, centered in the composition above the heavy chain, and brilliantly lit. The mount of this shell, with its sea-creature base and trident-bearing figure, signifies the watery origins of the nautilus and the oceans that transported its shell on its way to becoming an artifact. This analysis will elucidate inextricable and symbiotic relationships between water and diverse bodies within systems of knowledge central to Dutch consciousness, symbolized by the nautilus and other elements of the painting like the skull and glass roemer. Moreover, the nautilus will be illuminated as intermediary between dichotomies of geography, typography, culture, and species linked to the Dutch Republic.  

Nuno Grancho, Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen and the Royal Danish Academy – Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, Copenhagen

The history of water and its ecologies in the visual and spatial cultures of Serampore

From the sixteenth century, parties like the Mughal, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, and Danish were drawn to the ecologies of the Hooghly, a river distributary of the Ganges in the Bengal coast of India. Presenting the river as a substance that is shaped by its contingencies and ever-accruing additions into different practices in different spaces can have significant implications on how we engage with the architecture and cities of its margins. Can artefacts such as these then allow us to understand aesthetic systems and water systems as having the same or overlapping boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning?

This paper will address the history of water and its ecologies in the visual and spatial cultures of Serampore, a former Danish colonial city from 1745 until 1845 located in the Hooghly river basin in India. I will address how material practices and aesthetic systems related to water wrote the architectural and urban histories of Serampore. Taking affect seriously allows me to return 18th– and 19th-century Serampore and (re)read it as a colonial city profoundly shaped by water. While, at first glance, it might seem unfeasible, even incongruous, to link histories of the natural environment with histories of architecture and cities, the paper suggests that the history of Serampore becomes affective when phenomenological approaches can be prepared to accept the material force of water. 

Kathrin Wagner, Liverpool Hope University 

He who swims wins? A global perspective on notions of masculinity in imagery of early modern swimming and bathing  

During the early modern period, art works showing swimming and bathing bodies interacting with open waters are strongly connected to gender, sexuality and notions of power and transgression. Whilst the female body is often objectified and eroticised, the depiction of male swimmers and bathers focuses on notions of masculinity and strength but can also touch upon aspects of (homo)eroticism.  

Taking into consideration social, political and anthropological factors, this paper examines Western and non-Western traits of male interaction with open waters and discusses three different types of images:  

1) Fictional storytelling (Hero and Leander, Mortlake tapestry cycle 1620s)  

2) The establishment of a cult of personality (William Allan, Lord Byron reposing in the House of a Fisherman having swum the Hellespont, 1831)  

3) Warrior Swimming (Samurais in Japan during the 16th and 17th centuries, e.g. Kano School, Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, Folding Screen, ca. 1650)  

It will be key to explore what roles nudity, semi-nudity and fully dressed swimming play in this context. The paper also touches upon the phenomenon of the ‘absent image’ when it comes to depicting, or rather non-depicting, swimming male slaves during the early modern period.  

The existing scholarship that is exploring the history of swimming alludes to differences in male and female swimming. What is still needed is an art historical discussion about visual concepts of gender and sexuality in early modern swimming and bathing. The findings of this paper, which form part of the research for an upcoming monograph, address this omission.

Ben Pollitt, Courtauld Institute of Art 

The Shape of Water in Gabriel Bray’s Circum-Atlantic Images 

The watercolours Lieutenant Gabriel Bray produced on board HMS Pallas (1774–75) invite exploration of Paul Gilroy’s framing of the ship as a distinct mode of cultural production. Imagining this mode as both operating in response to and in adjacency with the aquatic allows for an expansion of the term body of water to include bodies that act like or are shaped by water. The various watery bodies that appear in Bray’s images—tea, grog, watercolours—are shown contained within replicable objects—cups, pots, barrels, tankards, the cells of a porcelain palette. Similarly, defined by the ship’s edges, the flexible bodies of sailors are shown adapting to their fabricated environment. Each man has a numbered place within the ship, probably assigned to them by Bray. The accommodation of these bodies, both liquid and human, into reproducible elements, enacts a surrogation, to use Joseph Roach’s term, in which the ontologically unstable spaces of the circum-Atlantic are transfigured as coherent and productive of maritime capital. Bray’s strangely contorted figures, however, critique this process. Furthermore, these rare depictions of the living conditions of the common sailor prompt imaginings of what was never shown, the horrendous predicament of enslaved Africans on board British-built ships whose route the Pallas was not only commissioned to follow, but was also committed to protecting from foreign interference; Bray’s images, like the mission on which he served, thus, becoming entangled in a more pervasive and violent network of imperial constraint.  

Johannes von Müller, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel 

Plus ultra: Containing the Seas from Francis Bacon to Jules Verne 

This paper starts from a comparison of the frontispiece of Francis Bacon’s Novum organum scientiarum (1620) and the title page of Jules Verne’s Les Enfants du capitaine Grant (1867- 68). The frontispiece shows a cog returning from its oceanic voyage to a harbour formed by the Pillars of Hercules. Since Emperor Charles V, the latter stood for the altered motto ‘plus ultra’. The 19th century title page inverts this concept: a steamship is framed not by pillars but by a smoking volcano and gun smoke, lying at anchor at the literal ‘end of the world’. 

Verne’s novel – in which a message in a bottle sets the events in motion – is a popular reaction to the significance messages in a bottle had in the scientific culture of the 19th century. They were used to induce currents and waterways connecting all parts of the globe. This approach, based on observation and very much in line with the Baconian method, was dedicated to continuing to investigate the bodies of water whose alleged inexhaustibility had driven – and financed – in the 16th and 17th centuries the dawn of what is considered the modern period, as implied by the frontispiece of Bacon’s Novum Organum

The paper will associate the early modern period as an age of sea voyages and the industrialised 19th century and its relationship with the by then already exhausted waterways. Thus, it discusses critical aspects of the lasting legacy of “watery circulations” of knowledge and goods in the early modern world. 

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