Canvas is Canvas

Left: Manet, Battle of the Kearsage and the Alabama (1864); Right: Eakins, Starting out for Rail (1874)

Most of the visual metaphors for an artist’s implements revealed here are related to their referent in art through their form, their function or some other more abstract link. A rifle or sword is long and thin like a paintbrush. They must be aimed and used precisely like an artist's hand. A bouquet of flowers (as in Manet’s Olympia) also resembles the shape and colors of a palette. Such metaphoric "tools" often appear in situations that are not quite realistic, providing hints about access to the interpreter. Why is Olympia's maid displaying the flowers from behind her? Why do soldiers shoot their weapons far too close to their victims in situations that would never happen like that in life? There are many such examples. The sails of a boat are different. They look normal. They are what they are.

The white canvas of a boat’s sail is normally stretched to resemble exactly what it is: an angled canvas. Canvas is canvas. From Edouard Manet’s Civil War painting, The Kearsage and The Alabama (left), to Eakins’ quiet scenes off-shore at dusk (right) no-one seems to have ever noted a metaphor so common in art that it is probably difficult for a poetic artist to paint a canvas sail without the perceived link. In those above a man wearing a top hat, as Manet always did in public, stands in the boat before a canvas flying a French pennant as a sign both of Manet’s mastery over French painting and of the state honor he deserved as her greatest artist. In the Eakins the canvas emerges from the eye-shaped boat; is angled as on an easel; and stretched by mast and boom. Even Velazquez’s great painting known as La Tela Real in Spanish (The Royal Canvas) but blindly translated into English as King Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar is what it is, one of the canvasses of the King of Spanish Painting shaped like an eye with “artists” and “spectators” surrounding it. In life the Royal Enclosure was surrounded by a giant canvas to contain the boar while hunting, an entertainment observed by the king and queen just as the royal couple seem to watch Velazquez painting in Las Meninas. The link is not casual but deep and will be explained more fully in the near future. In the meantime, just remember when looking at a seascape by a major artist that canvas sails are usually in metaphor exactly what they are in life: canvas.

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