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Maritime Salem, Massachusetts | A Visit to the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Harbor

Maritime Salem, Massachusetts | A Visit to the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Harbor
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It appears art has fused with the sea in Salem, Massachusetts. The Peabody-Essex Museum’s newest exhibit Impressionists on the Water, open through February 17, 2014, has found a proper setting in maritime Salem.

Peabody Essex Museum

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe front entrance of the Peabody Essex Museum.

This past rainy Sunday, I spent the day discovering the maritime influence in Salem’s art and culture. The exhibit opens with a stunning Monet painting placed next to a model sailboat. The clear connection between the subject of the Impressionists and the model ships displayed the surprising theme: an acknowledgment that the placid subjects of the paintings come from a rich history of man and boating.

Peabody Essex Museum

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithImpressionist on the Water

The exhibit retells the maritime history of France, starting with its trade in the 18th and 19th century. A French Naval Frigate Model from the 1780s is placed next to a painting by Francois Joseph Frederic Roux, Fleet Maneuvers (French Warship) from 1834. Both are beautiful recreations of an intricate ship, but hold a high regard for the dramatic.

As I moved through the gallery, I was led into the sporting life of the Impressionists and boating. The turmoil of the romantic fleets and ships eventually shifts into the relaxed and recreational boats of the Impressionists. Dark and rolling clouds of benevolent storms are replaced with white, billowy skies. The models of trade and warships are replaced with full-sized skulls with names like the Nana.

The whole exhibit is designed around the boating experience. Boat curves and details subtly appear on the walls of the exhibit space. Cloud projections are set up on the light grey walls. Perhaps the most rewarding live-action feature of the exhibit is the replication of Monet’s floating studio he had in Argenteuil. You stand inside this “boat” with cast-iron pans, paintbrushes, and breakfast’s leftovers. You look upon a video screen with alternating river scenes. Next to this “window” is the artist’s window: an electronic canvas that records the creation of pastel landscapes.

My grandmother, who accompanied me to the museum, was perhaps critical of the “formless sails” and “curly-haired heads” of Monet’s rolling waves. Still by the end the emerald greens, soft or stormy grays, and Renoir’s peachy pallet came to be approved. She was quiet pleased with the exhibit.

Impressionist on the Water is scattered with French flags, but the story depicted by the artists is a similar narration to Salem’s history. With the original settlement in 1626, Salem fishermen developed an economic base that would develop into the international trading port of Salem. Even the PEM’s roots trace back to the sea. The museum started in 1799 when the East India Marine Society of Salem’s captains decided to collect their worldly objects.

salem ship

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe flags of Salem’s harbor.

Marine Arts Gallery

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe arts and sea in Salem.

The rest of maritime Salem is just outside the museum’s doors with the National Park Service’s visitor center across the street. My family and I took a short drive to see the historic wharfs that are a part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and to grab lunch.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithFinz, a seafood restaurant in Salem.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithInside Finz, with views of the harbor.

Finz's docks

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe docks right outside Finz.

It was nothing but a pleasure to discover how the sea has impacted Salem’s cuisine. We went to Finz for a late lunch. The restaurant sits right on the water. Their menu ranges from classic New England seafood like lobster rolls, to creative seafood dishes like buffalo calamari.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe calamari goes quickly.

PEI Mussels

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithPrince Edward Island Mussels.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithCajun-rubbed and grilled swordfish.

After lunch, I took a quick walk down the wharfs. A tour group was stopped by the historic houses, and a few people were walking with their dogs on the windy wharf.

Salem Tour

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithA tour group stands in the cold air.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithWalking the dog along the wharf.

Despite the cold air, the scene resonated with the exhibit at the PEM. Gulls flew from the harbor and boats lined the docks. A small yacht named My Wife had the same humor of painter Gustave Caillebotte’s boat, the Roastbeef.

My Wife

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithMy Wife sits by the docks.

The Friendship, a replica of the trading ship built in 1797, sits in the wharf with the backdrop of Salem’s mills and harbor. The New England scene could have been a replica of Monet’s Sailboats on the Seine, which subtly captured industrialism on the French rivers.

The Friendship

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe Friendship by the wharf.

Sail Loft

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe Sail Loft, next to the Friendship

Salem Harbor

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithA scene similar to Sailboats on the Seine.

At the same time, nothing about Salem could have been a part of those French paintings. From the federal-style houses, to the seafood, the Christmas lights in the stores, and the cold November day; it was New England through and through.

Salem Harbor

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithA view of Salem Harbor from the wharfs.

Historic houses of Salem

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithHistoric houses of Salem.

PEI Mussels

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithThe seafood goes quickly

Christmas Lights

Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithChristmas lights of the Salem’s stores.

It was such an easy and enriching day trip. As the weather gets colder and wetter, looking out through the museum windows can be quiet a comfort.


Photo/Art by Zinnia SmithOne last look at maritime Salem.

Walking with my grandmother from the restaurant to the car, she pointed to the historical wharfs of Salem and restated everything I had noticed from my walk, and proceeded to instruct me to bring my watercolors and easel down here to the harbor. I responded that I would need to bring a large hat and mittens.

Zinnia Smith


Zinnia Smith

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One Response to Maritime Salem, Massachusetts | A Visit to the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Harbor

  1. Connie December 14, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Mike and I just finished reading beautifully written article. The photos are fabulous. We are planning a visit to Salem and the museum in the near future?

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