Seville in the Sunlight

June 1, 2004
Harbor of Seville

Harbor of Seville
Samuel Colman
1865
Oil on canvas
34 1/2 x 54 1/2 inches
Museum purchase, 2002

 

In this romantic view of the Harbor of Seville (1865), American landscape painter Samuel Colman has depicted a calm port scene enveloped by an atmospheric vapeur de l'air. The haze created by what art historians call a "view against the light," illumination from behind by a low sun, at once unifies and romanticizes the setting. This pictorial technique reflects a seventeenth-century tradition made famous by the French master Claude Lorraine and, a generation before Colman, "the painter of light," J.M.W. Turner.

Colman was one of the earliest American artists to paint the Spanish landscape. In Harbor of Seville, he chose to represent prominent architectural monuments on the banks of the Guadalquivir River.

On the left is the Giralda, a twelfth-century mosque with a Renaissance bell chamber crowned by a bronze figure of Christian Faith. Balancing the composition on the right is the thirteenth-century Moorish Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided tower with a roof of gleaming gold tiles.

These buildings are monuments to Seville's glorious past and once-prominent status as a primary port for the Indies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the nineteenth century, such historical associations paralleled a growing American curiosity about the region. At the time of Colman's arrival, however, Spanish trade centers had shifted from Seville to other ports such as Cadiz, perhaps lending to the wistfully reflective mood of the composition.

Colman's interest in Spanish painting was perhaps sparked by a widespread American attraction to Spain's past. Beginning in the early 1800s, Americans had become increasingly interested in the Spanish history of discovery, conquest, and colonization, which they saw as resembling their own historical legacy. The discoveries of Christopher Columbus, the paintings of Goya and Vel·zquez, and the prose of Cervantes, became popular elements of this nostalgic, cultural fascination.

When Colman traveled to the south of Spain, he sought new and exotic material for his compositions and found it in the Moorish towns and provincial settings. He filled numerous sketchbooks with drawings of sun-baked cliffs, port cityscapes, and architectural elements. Colman paved the way for other artists seeking firsthand experience of Spanish culture. Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt were among the many artists who later followed his lead.