A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource — Spring Semester 1999

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Chris Witcombe

The study of water in art may initially involve examining the different ways in which it has been represented. Water has often been shown or indicated in the form of a symbol or stylized in some way.

At other times, during the Renaissance and later, it is represented more realistically. Many artists painted water in motion - a flowing stream or river, a turbulent ocean, or even a waterfall - but also enjoyed views of tranquil waters - lakes, slow-moving rivers, and views of a calm sea. In each case, the water determined the overall mood of the image.

While some artists showed a direct interest in water itself, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who was fascinated by water and studied it both as an artist/scientist and as hydrological engineer, many others represented the many attributes of water conveyed literally, metaphorically, symbolically, or allegorically in mythology, religion, and folklore. One category of images can be grouped together under the heading Waters of Change. Another category may be labelled Waters of Destruction.

Since ancient times, art has served cults of water, contributing images that personify both the physical and metaphysical aspects of water and the numerous water divinities.

Female water divinities have received particular attention from artists, an interest which has evolved into a certain pre-occupation with women bathing.

Artists have also played an important role in conveying in visual terms belief in the sacredness of water.

In more practical terms, Roman architects built great aqueducts in order to move water from one place to another, and huge baths and while sculptors have designed many beautiful fountains.



H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College