Behold, the Sea Itself

Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind,
speckle the green and blue,

See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in
or out of port,

See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.

—Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Exposition,” Leaves of Grass, 1900

British Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set these lines by Walt Whitman to music in his 1910 Sea Symphony.

As an island nation, Britain’s mercantile and imperial power, as well as its very survival, depended on naval prowess. Given its national importance, the sea has long been a favorite subject among British artists, writers, and musicians. Behold, the Sea Itself juxtaposed images of the sea and of ships with poetic texts. Spanning the late seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, this exhibition highlighted important themes in British maritime art, such as travel, trade and colonization, naval power, and the sublimity of storm and shipwreck.

Drawn from the Center’s collections of paintings, drawings, prints, and rare books, the exhibition featured works by Willem van de Velde the Elder, Charles Brooking, J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, and Richard Parkes Bonington.

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


The exhibition was curated by Zoë Kahr, PhD candidate in the History of Art, University College, London, and MBA candidate, Yale School of Management.

Top image
Charles Brooking, Ship wrecked on a rocky coast (detail), 1747–50, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection