In Pictures: A Surprising Museum Show Explores Seaweed in Art and Design, From a Sargent Painting to a Tiffany Punch Bowl


The shelves are filled with books that dive deep into the history of a single supposedly neglected subject, often making grand claims for how they shaped history: Salt. Cadavers. Cod. Sheep. 

Now open at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts is a surprising exhibition in a similar vein: “A Singularly Marine and Fabulous Produce: the Cultures of Seaweed” (through December 3). The show takes its name from a passage by Henry David Thoreau, who called seaweed “a fit invention for Neptune to adorn his car with,” adding that it is one of the products of the sea that has “a certain fabulous quality.” 

“The project’s programming and catalogue make connections between the cultural histories of seaweed as explored in the exhibition and the urgent environmental issues of today related to climate change, aquaculture, and sustainability—where seaweed is at the vanguard,” said chief curator Naomi Slipp in a press release. Slipp organized the show along with Northeastern University professor Maura Coughlin, who specializes in ecocritical art history, and it includes works ranging from the 19th century to examples by contemporary artists like Mark Dion. 

Andrew Wyeth, Lobster #4, 1940. Collection of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. © 2023 Wyeth Foundation for American Art /Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Casual beachgoers may find seaweed distasteful, but such plants are a key part of shoreline economies, used for fertilizer, home insulation, and bedding for livestock, as Slipp pointed out, and thus have long attracted the attention of artists and craftspeople. 

The show centers on Massachusetts-born artist Clement Nye Swift’s nearly eight-foot-wide painting Seaweed Gatherers, which he showed at the 1878 Salon exhibition in Paris. It was painted in Pont-Aven in Brittany, a region of France where artists escaping Paris painted idealized versions of the local peasants. Slipp points out in the catalogue that such depictions were, by the time Swift got there, nostalgic renderings of an imagined pre-industrial past. 

Also on view are paintings by major figures like John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth as well as decorative arts by notable brands such as Gorham and Wedgewood, along with albums, collages, and early photographs by anonymous makers. Among the striking works are an 1880s photograph of a woman in a dress adorned with seaweed, a silver-and-gold Tiffany punch bowl decorated with a seaweed motif, and a life-size bronze sculpture of a fisherman’s sweater made of seaweed and wax by artist Celeste Roberge.  

A roster of heavy-hitting institutions have lent works to the show, among them New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the RISD Museum, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. 

See more images from the show below.

Amory Nelson Hardy, Woman Wearing a Seaweed Dress, c. 1880s. Private collection, courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum.

John Singer Sargent, Rocky Coast Near Boston, 1921. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Gorham Manufacturing Company, Corinthian trophy, 1887. Courtesy of the New York Yacht Club. Photo: Ellen McDermott.

Tiffany & Co., punch bowl, 1885. Copyright Tiffany Archives, 2023.

Celeste Roberge, Fisherman’s Knit Sweater, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Mark Dion, Herbarium, 2007-2011. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles.


More Trending Stories:  

In Pictures: Black Artists Use A.I. to Make Work That Reveals the Technology’s Inbuilt Biases for a New Online Show 

A Tourist Who Was Arrested for Carving His and His Girlfriend’s Names Into the Colosseum Is Begging for Forgiveness 

Bronze Statues and Artifacts From a Long-Buried Etruscan Site—Uncovered With the Help of a Garbage Man—Are Now on View in Rome 

Archaeologists Found an Ancient Marble Bust That May Have Belonged to Caligula at the Bottom of an Italian Lake 

German Archaeologists Find a 3,000-Year-Old Bronze Age Sword So Well Preserved That It ‘Almost Still Shines’ 

See Erwin Wurm’s Absurdist Sculptures Take Over a U.K. Park, From a Birkin Bag on Legs to a Bendy Truck Climbing the Wall 

Susie Barstow, a 19th-Century Artist Who Hiked Mountains in Bloomers to Paint Stunning Landscapes, Finally Gets a Museum Retrospective 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here