Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 8, 2009 with permission of the author and the Hudson River Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Everson Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

American Ship Portraits & Marine Painting,

Introduction

by Philip Chadwick Foster Smith

 

According to sailors' definition, a boat is small enough to be hoisted aboard and stowed on the deck of a ship. A ship, technically, is only one particular type of sailing vessel, but the word vessel can be applied to any rig -- including ships or barks or brigs or schooners and even steamers -- as well as certain kinds of boats. Confusing? Perhaps, yet no more so than the semantic difficulties engendered by expressions like seascapes, ship portraits, and marine paintings.

Seascapes, exemplified by the work of such men as Allston, Cole, Kensett, Whittredge, Church, Bierstadt, Heade, or Bricher, range from tranquil summer shorelines to bleak wintry headlands brooding over a cold sea as distant vessels scud across the horizon. Romantic and atmospheric conditions are important ingredients, for a pure seascape touches the emotions more readily than it does the intellect. The artist's virtuosity is at stake -- his handling of color, shadow and light, composition, and theatrical effect.

The ship portraitist's art depended primarily upon his draughtsmanship because his clientel differed entirely from that of the seascapist. A man's portrait, for instance, is not judged so much for its artistic merits as for whether or not it is a good likeness of the man himself. It may be superior artistically, but unless it bears a reasonable resemblance to the subject, the artist is likely to forfeit his commission. Similarly, if the portrait is a posthumous one, it rarely compares favorably with one done from the life. So it is with ship portraits. During the nineteenth century, the Golden Age of marine artists, a mediocre painter who represented faithfully all aspects of a vessel's hull and rigging could do a brisk business; yet an artist who was a superb technician but who had no understanding of the workings of a ship could expect lean times if his patrons consisted wholly of mariners. Seafaring men are notoriously fussy about economy, order, and detail. In general, it matters little to them whether or not an artist has the ability to depict naturally earth, sky, and sea so long as their ships are correctly drawn

Just as the word vessel is a generic one, so too is the phrase marine painting. No one could call Bierstadt or Bricher ship portraitists and yet they may be termed marine artists. Antoine Roux, Honore Pellegrin, Michele Felice Corne, and the dozens of other ship portraitists could hardly qualify as seascapists, but in their own right they were marine artists as well. The middle ground in marine painting was held by such men as Thomas Birch, Robert Salmon, Fitz Hugh Lane, Clement Drew, William Bradford, and James E. Buttersworth, all of whom to a greater or lesser degree were capable of combining the basic elements of both the ship portrait painter and the seascapist.

The current exhibition, American Ship Portraits & Marine Painting, at the Everson Museum of Art draws upon the collections of numerous institutions with specialties as varied as maritime and naval history to the Fine Arts. The works exhibited reflect that diversification, yet the focus is on the middle ground artists and the pure ship portraitists. In recent years more and more private individuals have come to appreciate the true contemporary ship painting -- that is, one executed at a time when the vessel represented still existed or one painted by a competent individual who had actually viewed it or had based his work on unimpeachable sources of information. Hitherto, save for a handful of aged veterans of deep-water sail and small numbers of specialized collectors, only the world's maritime-oriented museums fully recognized their significance. Contemporary views of long-vanished vessels are as much documents as archival journals, ledgers, and manuscripts. Like the portrait of a man painted from life, the average contemporary ship portrait rarely needs to have excuses made for it.

Although ship portraiture in various forms can be traced well back into ancient civilizations, it has been only during the past three centuries or so that it has developed into what we know today. The earliest work during that period to combine in a professional manner draughtsmanship with technical accuracy was done by a few English, northern European, and Dutch artists, such as the Van de Veldes, and others in the western Mediterranean whose proficiency appears to have evolved from the ex voto pictures they painted for sailors miraculously saved by the Virgin from disaster at sea.

By mid-eighteenth century, certain types of purely secular ship paintings had become fashionable among the aristocratic classes, particularly in Britain and on the Continent. These consisted mainly of smoke-filled naval engagements, royal yachts beating to windward in stiff Channel blows, towering frigates approaching the Spithead anchorage, outbound East Indiamen, or a cluster of non-descript and usually unidentified craft dropping up and down a river with the tide. Views of identified, commonplace merchantmen and coasting vessels were yet to be tackled seriously. Probably they were not done because such paintings were considered unfashionable or unimportant or because for a private shipowner to have commissioned an oil or a watercolor of his latest vessel would have been a luxury few could afford. It was not until the final decades of the eighteenth century that a qualified artist could profitably undertake ship portraiture for ordinary shipmasters and other seafaring men. The nineteenth century would see a prolific blossoming forth of notable talents, nourished by a vastly increased demand.

There is one school of thought which maintains that American marine painting evolved at least in part from the small background vignettes occasionally found in portraits of eminent Colonial mariners and merchants as far back as the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Often these contain contemporary shipping subjects related in some way to the sitter. That this is actually the case is difficult to prove and would be hotly debated by most maritime historians and their counterparts from the world of the history of art. What is certainly true, however, is that most of the very few presently-known sketches and paintings of identified pre-Revolutionary American vessels, portrait vignettes aside, were the work of amateurs, usually seafaring men themselves. That this should be so is not difficult to understand. Many a young man going to sea before the mast nurtured fond ambitions to rise to the command of his own vessel. But he could never hope to accomplish his goal unless he first had mastered the science of navigation. Under the critical eye of an experienced navigator he would wrestle with trigonometric intricacies until he had become absolutely competent in theoretical navigation. The eighteenth century laid heavy emphasis on penmanship. Neat work indicated a clear and educated mind. So the student more often than not maintained a work book, and if he had any skill at all he might embellish his exercises with small pen sketches or watercolors of compass roses, harbors, fortifications, and vessels to illustrate particular problems. It was only a short, and quite natural, step for an accomplished shipmaster to sketch profiles of shorelines and ships themselves into his logbook or sea journal.

Professionally done portraits of American vessels were not to appear in profusion until well after the end of the American Revolution. Once Independence had been won, the old fixed shipping patterns formerly set by British mercantile policies no longer held. Americans could trade almost anywhere in the world provided initiative and risk were the principal ingredients. Trade with Canton, the only port in China open to foreign trade, no longer inhibited by the monopoly of the British East India Company at once opened to Americans; several American-owned vessels, under Dutch charter, penetrated the isolation of Japan a half-century before Perry; India and the East Indies poured immense wealth into merchants' pockets through the spice and pepper trades; the Northwest Coast of America provided sea otter pelts, the Sandwich Islands sandalwood, Fiji edible sea slugs, all for the China Trade; East and West Africa yielded ivory, gold, hides, dates, and gum copal; American ships flocked to the Mediterranean for Southern European merchandise, fruit, and wine; while others further north wore furrows in the ocean to the principal entrepots of the Baltic in search of hemp, iron, timber, and naval stores.

Trade in the early decades of the 1800s, despite war and unsettled conditions in Europe, expanded rapidly. Marine artists flourished in many of the civilized world's greatest seaports. Ship portraiture was becoming increasingly fashionable, and, most importantly, was no longer an extravagance. In 1816, for example, a framed watercolor by one of the most accomplished marine artists of his day, Antoine Roux pere, cost thirty-six dollars. An average panel by Robert Salmon fifteen years later might fetch half that amount.

Who, then, were the men to whom Americans turned for such work? Some began their careers painting signs or ornamental devices on coaches. Others ended up that way. A few made the best of unrelated work, grinding their colors and painting only when time permitted, until a modicum of popular success allowed full-time devotion to it. Some sold charts and navigating instruments or canvases and artists' colors for supplementary income. About most of them, relatively little is known.

Marseilles was one of the great sources of ship portraits, not only of American vessels but of most other maritime nations as well. This was due in large measure to the well-known Roux family, the working years of which stretched from the latter part of the eighteenth century until within almost a decade of the twentieth. The first of the clan to paint marines was the patriarch, Joseph Roux, who died in 1793 at the age of sixty-eight. Although primarily an instrument seller and hydrographer, he was also skilled with the brush. Unlike his son and all but one of his three grandsons, who painted in watercolor, he is known to have worked in oils, exemplified in this exhibition by his dramatic 1781 view of the action between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. Joseph's son, Joseph Ange Antoine Roux, probably the most precise draughtsman in the family and best known as"Antoine Roux" or "Antoine Roux pere," was born in 1765. By the late 1780's or early 90's he had perfected an almost photographic style of painting, which, with its delicate brushwork and combined use of ink and watercolor, showed every plank in the hull, every ripple in the sails, and every line in the rigging. His three sons, Antoine (fils aine), Francois, and Frederic all matured as ship portraitists at an early age. Their father's photographic style had a profound influence upon them, yet although their draughtsmanship never quite equalled his, Francois and Frederic, in particular, developed more individual styles often containing traces of the seascapist's technique of theatrical effect (see Francois Roux's view of the Poland burning at sea).

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Europe, especially in the area of the Mediterranean, abounded with first-rate watercolorists who specialized in accurate representations of vessels. At Marseilles, in addition to the members of the Roux family, worked Nicolas Cammillieri and Honore Pellegrin; Domenico Gavarrone and Antoine Pittaluga painted at Genoa; Guiseppi Fedi and Pietro Mazzinghi at Leghorn (Livorno); Nicholas S. Cammillieri (not to be confused with the artist at Marseilles) at Malta; Giovanni Luzro at Venice; Felice Polli at Trieste; and Raffael Corsini at Smyrna. Elsewhere in Europe, H. Cassinelli and Montardier worked at Havre and Jacob Petersen and C. Clausen at Copenhagen. The total list of Continental and British artists engaged in similar endeavors for Yankee patrons during the century is almost endless.

One of the Mediterranean artists unnamed in the foregoing list was Michele Felice Corne, born on the island of Elba in 1752. During the early years of the Napoleonic wars, he served in the army and supposedly rose to the rank of captain before he discovered that the military life disagreed with him and he took French leave. By the year 1799 Corne was hard at work at Naples where he completed a series of views of the Salem ship Mount Vernon. For reasons best known to himself he concluded to take passage in her to Salem where he arrived early in the year 1800. Whereas most of his Mediterranean contemporaries painted only in pure watercolor, Corne prefered gouache or oil and was equally at home in both. In Salem he did much to make ship portraiture fashionable and his skills were much in demand. "Mr. Corne," wrote Salem's omnipotent chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, "continues to enjoy his reputation as a painter of Ships. In every house we see the ships of our harbour delineated for those who have navigated them. Painting before unknown, in its first efforts, is now common among our children."

Four years after his arrival in the United States, Corne moved from Salem to Boston, thence in 1822 to Newport, Rhode Island, where he died in 1845, perhaps less famed for his canvases than for the fact that it was he who had popularized the culinary use of the tomato in America. Corne was both a ship portraitist and a marine artist. His compositions were far less mechanical than those of his Mediterranean counterparts -- his vessels did more than just float in the sea-they heaved and pitched about, one can almost hear the ships' pumps thumping, the wind plucking their rigging like harp strings, and the hulls complaining under the forces exerted against them.

During the War of 1812, Corne painted numerous naval actions, some of which were later engraved and published. English-born Thomas Birch, by then residing in the environs of Philadelphia, also undertook similar scenes with success. Within another few years Robert Salmon would temporarily forsake his native Britain for the delights of Boston. All in all, a tradition of deepwater marine painting was being generated slowly within the United States itself.

Salmon is of particular interest because of the effect he had on the generation of native-born marine artists which followed. Baptised at Whitehaven in 1775, he painted in the vicinity of Liverpool, England, and Greenock, Scotland, between the years 1800 and 1828. Then, in 1828, he came to Boston where during the next fourteen years he completed over 400 oils ranging in size from small panels to panoramas over fifteen feet in length. About 1842 he returned to Britain and died there some years later. No one who has ever seen one of his paintings could fail to agree that not only are his vessels and scenes so painstakingly rendered as to be absolute historical documents, but also, like the seascapist, his scenes appeal immediately to the emotions.

The influence Salmon's oils wielded over fledgling artists of his day such as Gloucester's Fitz Hugh Lane, New Bedford's William Bradford, and even Boston's Clement Drew can never be adequately measured, but it was undoubtedly significant, particularly where Lane and Bradford were concerned. These men, less ship portraitists than marine artists and seascapists, formed the nucleus of America's home-grown artists of stature. That their traditions failed to be widened and expanded by later generations lay less with the creative inroads of photography than with the quickening pace of life and the gradual banishment of the age of sail altogether.

The exacting detail of the early nineteenth-century European ship portraitists, the stylized Chinese oils of American square riggers approaching Hong Kong, the wooden steamships of Bard, and the throbbing power of an Antonio Jacobsen coastal steamer document America's merchant and naval fleets during the country's formative years. The middle ground marine artists breathed a perpetual life into them.

About the author

Philip Chadwick Foster Smith was the Curator of Maritime History at the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts at the writing of this essay. He was a maritime historian, and an early member of the North American Society for Oceanic History and he authored over ten books and numerous articles.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 8, 2009 with permission of the Everson Museum of Art. The permission was granted to TFAO on December 15, 2008. Mr. Smith's essay pertains to American Ship Portraits & Marine Painting, which was on view at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York from January 9 through March 8, 1970.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Justin Rabideau, Collections Assistant of the Everson Museum of Art, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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