'The Steamboat - Ocean', photograph by Gustave Le Gray

'The Steamboat - Ocean', photograph by Gustave Le Gray

'The Steamboat - Ocean'
Photograph by Gustave Le Gray
1856
Albumen print from collodion-on-glass negative
Museum no. E.1339-2000
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In its extreme economy of compositional elements The Steamboat is unique among Le Gray’s seascapes. The lack of clouds, and the horizon blurred by sea mist, creates an environment in which the small vessel at the precise centre seems to sail into the unknown. Comparing this scene with his more visually dense seascapes suggests that Le Gray conceived of the set as a suite of contrasting images, each with a different emotional impact. He knew when to apply the drama of a turbulent sky and could easily have added one here from a second negative, as he had done elsewhere. Yet he preferred to leave it barren to enhance the feeling of isolation and vulnerability.