'Nolde understands the sea like no other painter before him. He sees it not from the beach or from a boat but as it exists in itself, devoid of any reference to man, eternally in motion, ever changing, living out its life in and for itself: a divine, self consuming, primal force that, in its untrammeled freedom, has existed unchanged since the very first day of creation...He has painted the sea in all its permutations, but above all in stormy agitation, its heavy swell transformed into white breakers as it retreats upon itself, beneath heavy, threatening clouds, behind which the autumnal evening sky bleeds in tones of red and deepest orange.' (Max Sauerlandt Emil Nolde, Munich , 1921, pp. 49-50.)
For Nolde who had grown up in Schleswig surrounded by the sea, the ocean was a permanent presence in his life and as such became one of the most important and perennial themes of his art. Bewegte See (Zwei Segler und ein kleiner Dampfer) (Stormy Sea (Two Sailing boats and a small steamer)) is a work that Nolde executed in 1914 shortly after his return to Europe from his South Seas journey in 1913. With its rich orange sky and its tempestuous waters it is an autumnal vision of the ocean that can be seen as an extension of an entire series of autumnal seascapes that Nolde had made between 1910 and 1911.
As in all his paintings of the sea, Nolde does not paint the ocean from a coastal point of view but from the perspective of someone immersed in it. The sea for Nolde is always a force of nature and his paintings of it reflect this point of view, depicting the sea as an elemental environment. Nolde had in fact awoken to this awe-inspiring aspect of the sea as an irrepressible force of nature while on a journey home from the small island of Anholt in a small cutter. 'Watching with amazement,' he recalled, ' I had to hold on with all my strength to the handrail, tossed every which way with the ship and the waves. The experience left such a strong impression on me that for years I painted seas with wildly rolling green waves, and only a tiny bit of yellow sky at the upper corners.' (Emil Nolde, quoted in Werner Haftmann Emil Nolde, London, 1973, p. 68). With its small ship and sailing boats struggling in the choppy waters on this dark evening sea, this painting also reads like a memory of this occasion.