Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on July 3, 2009 with permission of the The Mariners' Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Mariners' Museum through this phone number or Web site:


Antonio Jacobsen's Painted Ships on Painted Oceans

by Harold S. Sniffen


Torn by mixed emotions, Antonio Jacobsen catapulted onto the streets of New York from Copenhagen, Denmark, late in the year 1873. Dark loneliness at first overwhelmed his bright dreams of new opportunities in the New World. His daughter Helen recalled, "He told of his unutterably desolate first Christmas Eve, [bereft of] wonderful nights of family festivals in Denmark, with all the family gathered about the great tree, banked with presents, and dancing and singing after a tremendous and ceremonious dinner." But the twenty-three year-old Jacobsen was too resilient and eager for his new life to let sentiments hold him down long.

Jacobsen could have chosen music to express his visions and provide a living: he arrived in America proficient not only on the cello, but also the violin and viola. Indeed, the name his father gave him, Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen, comprised those of three Italian master violin makers: Antonio Stradivari, Nicolo Amati, and Gasparo da Salo.

Antonio's father, Thomas Jacobsen, was a violin maker known for "exemplary workmanship." He was praised by artists and honored by the Court. Yet tragically, Thomas died when Antonio was but three years of age, so the son could have hardly remembered him. The violin shop was sold to another instrument maker, and later, taken over by Antonio's brother. The Jacobsen home continued to be a musical haven, providing the young Antonio a solid cultural background. Yet even with such a rich musical heritage, Antonio Jacobsen was destined for a different calling.

However, he was practical enough to make use of his family's talent. According to Anita Jacobsen (no relation), a Jacobsen biographer, Antonio came from Denmark supplied with a letter of introduction to Leopold Damrosch, conductor of the orchestra that later became the New York Philharmonic. He was granted an audition, and soon occupied a chair in the string section. Though research has not documented his membership in this orchestra, it may be safely assumed that Jacobsen's music provided life's necessities while he sought his first love: painting.

Though family tradition asserts that Jacobsen received some formal painting instruction at the Royal Academy of Design in Copenhagen, Charles Cherry, an acquaintance, suggested Jacobsen's study was at the University of Copenhagen. But Cherry recalls Jacobsen's study "was terminated by a depression affecting the violin business." Cherry said Antonio then found employment in a department store.

Writings about his early years make much of Jacobsen's avoidance of conscription, but there seems to be good reason to suspect the accounts. Anita Jacobsen relates that he "took great joy in demonstrating his skill in the art of fencing or executing military drill", so military training may not have been entirely repugnant to Jacobsen. Evidently he participated in some form of training. Cherry wrote, "He had been called to serve short periods of military training, but when the time approached for him to start the long term, like many young men, he decided to seek his fortune in America."

Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving New York, 1820 - 1897, confirms Jacobsen's immigration and information about his transatlantic passage. Traveling on the French Line steamship Washington, he arrived in New York on August 21, 1873. The passenger manifest lists him: Antonio Jacobsen, age twenty-two, from Denmark.

Considering Helen Jacobsen Chapin's account of waning family fortunes prior to her father's departure from Denmark, it is surprising that Jacobsen traveled cabin-class, which might have cost as much as fourteen pounds, when steerage accommodations were available for about five.

Presumably Jacobsen's musical employment filled his nighttime hours in New York for some time, leaving days free to find other avenues to supplement his meager income.

Antonio's son, Alphonse, told Anita Jacobsen:

As many immigrants did, he went to Battery Park in New York City to look for work soon after his arrival in America. Since there were no employment agencies in those days, it was the custom for new arrivals to congregate there. They would sit on the benches and wait for someone to hire them...To pass the time while waiting for someone to give him a job, Antonio sketched the many ships that passed the Battery...It was not long before a representative of the Marvin Safe Company noticed his sketches and offered him a job decorating safes with garlands of flowers and other decorations. Antonio considered himself lucky to find work so easy and pleasant to do.

"One day a ship broker inquired if the safe company's decorator could paint a picture of their ship on their safe," recalled Cherry. They chose Jacobsen, much to his delight, as he was a lover of ships.

Helen Chapin explained her father "was fascinated by the sea and ships and he told with much emotion of seeing often, when a boy, the great sailing fleet of Denmark entering Copenhagen Harbor under full sail, the bellying canvas, the sun glittering on the blue water, and all the great ships of other nations riding at anchor. As a small boy, escaping family vigilance, he haunted the quays, spending all of his allowance hiring small boats to go aboard ships at anchor, plying everyone with countless questions, so that years after he was immensely proud of the accuracy of his painted ships."

The story of Jacobsen's entrée into a life-long career as a maritime portraitist has several variations, but the most likely scenario comes from Cherry: "Jacobsen was assigned to the job and found the safe in a ground floor room with a large window which exposed him to the gaze of passersby -- this in lower Manhattan. A well-dressed man came in and engaged Jacobsen to paint a picture of a ship in which he was interested that was docked in the East River." Other accounts assert that the man who approached him was an official of the Old Dominion Line. Cherry continued with his understanding of the events:

When Jacobsen was delivering the picture he was asked by a stranger if he was "the fella" who painted the picture he was carrying under his arm. Jacobsen thought the term "the fella" was uncomplimentary but held his tongue and as a result received an order for several pictures from this stranger. As ship brokers' offices were clustered in adjacent buildings on lower Broadway, if anything unusual happened, the news spread fast. Jacobsen's pictures must have been "unusual" because from this time on...he made a comfortable income solely by painting pictures of ships.

Jacobsen appeared in the New York City Directory's 1876 edition as, "Jacobsen, Antonio, Artist, 257 Eighth Av." Though the majority of his income was probably still from the orchestra, even at that early date he wished to be known as an artist.

Though demand for his ship portraits rapidly grew, somehow Jacobsen found time for romance. Anita Jacobsen wrote: "In 1878 he met Mary Melanie Schmidt [born February 1856], the daughter of an Alsation schoolmaster from Boston. They were married in the Church of the Strangers in New York City on July 6, 1878. Officials of the Fall River Line, in appreciation of the fine work he had done painting every ship of that line, presented the honeymoon couple with a trip to Fall River in the bridal suite of the steamer Bristol."

The Jacobsens lived at 257 Eight Avenue, on the corner of Twenty-third Street in Manhattan. With Antonio's studio and Mary's hairdressing shop under one roof, it must have been a busy place. They moved after two years and Mary took the responsibility of running their large house across the Hudson River at 705 Palisade Avenue, West Hoboken, New Jersey.

A family friend, Annie Marshall, spoke of Mary Jacobsen's gentleness as a person, but few other records describe her personality. Photographs show her to have been a most attractive women. Mary died of a kidney disorder in 1909 at the age of fifty-three. A family friend Ray Whitlock commented, "Jacobsen's lovely wife to whom he was very devoted, passed on several years before the War. I do not think he was very well afterwards."

The extent of Jacobsen's excursions in and about the greater New York area can be gleaned from his notations on some sketches. Frequently, he indicated the location of the vessel he was sketching. The busy Erie Basin was named most often among more than 130 waterfront spots he noted.

Jacobsen documented his moves about Gotham in his sketchbooks. As he kept no diary, it is often necessary to rely on sketches for references to travels farther afield: Newburgh, Barren Island (Long Island), and Boston.

Evidence of a visit to Hampton Roads is found in a 1907 sketchbook containing many drawings of Virginia steamboats. He sketched a carfloat in Norfolk at the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad Company pier. The railroad floated railway cars to Cape Charles, and then rolled them to New York by way of Philadelphia. Charles Cherry recalled that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (probably the Old Dominion Line) hired Jacobsen to paint all their boats in the Hampton Roads area.

Jacobsen enjoyed such diversions from the pressure of studio work. Another escape was the family vacation spot in the Helderberg Mountains, north of the Catskills and south of Albany. Whitlock said, "Jacobsen loved to sit and watch the changing lights on the mountains and the Schoharie River which flowed through the valley. Yet, remarkable as it may seem, I do not think that he ever attempted to put the people or the mountains on canvas."

Beyond the satisfaction of his paintings, their endless procession tired him, and he sought other outlets. His daughter Helen said Jacobsen also "studied, went to concerts, lectures, galleries, and museums, read voraciously, played the violin, and absorbed much good music." Though it fell short as a profession, music remained important to Jacobsen.

Elwin Eldredge, a steamship historian and family friend, remembered, "I always enjoyed visiting West Hoboken and the comfort of the Jacobsen home. I attended one Saturday evening musical and Carl (Jacobsen's son) took me to the streetcar stop. I nearly met the milkman when I reached home that morning in Brooklyn." Anita Jacobsen added, "Mrs. Jacobsen provided smorgasbord and dinner after the music," evoking lively conversation following the musical segments of such evenings. Such sociability prevailed on nights that Antonio and Mary hosted other marine artists in the West Hoboken neighborhood.

Chapin mentioned her father's artist friends: S. Ward Stanton, Fred Pansing, James Bard, Fred Cozzens, James Buttersworth, Worden Wood, and Albert Bishop. These artists were part of what marine art critic Anthony Peluso calls "The Hoboken School." Five of these seven artists -- Bard, Pansing, Stanton, Bishop, and Wood -- were primarily ship portrait painters, while Cozzens and particularly Buttersworth were more in the category of marine artist.

The Jacobsen's 705 Palisade Avenue home was a comfortable size, possibly forty feet across the front, by thirty feet deep. It was bounded by Palisade Avenue, Division Street, Clinton Avenue, and Serrell Street in a fashionable West Hoboken neighborhood, separated from the business section by a bluff. The Jacobsen's high front porch overlooked Palisade Avenue and had a magnificent view of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline.

Photographs show the house to be well-furnished: carpets on most floors and draperies at the windows. No deed remains, so it is unknown whether Jacobsen owned or rented this residence, but the family lived here until 1929, when the area was condemned and converted into what is now Washington Park.

One photograph shows Antonio and Mary reading in the library of their Palisade Avenue home. "He kept beautifully bound copies of Shakespeare, Dickens, Schiller, and Goethe," Anita Jacobsen discovered. "Nothing delighted him as much as a set of handsomely bound books."

She continued, "Artistic in every respect, he filled the house with beautiful things and even decorated a set of white translucent porcelain as a present to his wife," a few pieces of which his grandson still enjoys. The parlor walls in the photo are decorated with pictures, although except for the yachting painting, the subject matter is unclear. A faintly visible object in the window of the photo reveals a partly rigged model of an auxiliary steamship.

The Jacobsens' affluence allowed for domestic help, as indicated in the 1900 Census. They owned a horse and surrey, possessed a library of leather-bound books, and took summer vacations in the mountains. Helen recalled the Palisade Avenue years: "Here he lived happily for many years with his wife, his three children...surrounded by many friends, absorbed in many hobbies -- horses, dogs, many birds of bright plumage, and a monkey who knew when the trolley stopped at the corner, a block away, that he was coming home, and made a terrific commotion in joy."

The Jacobsen's did not start their family until some twelve years after marriage. Then, in fairly close succession, came Helen Amalie, born in March 1890; Carl Ferdinand, born November 1892; and Alphonse Theodore, born October 1894.

Helen said her father "took me on all of his sketching trips until I was seven and had to go to school." She, too, had some talent for art, but made use of it only in a desultory fashion, such as the hand-drawn Christmas cards she sent to Edwin Eldredge. Her letters indicate a person of education; Alphonse Jacobsen's wife Sally said that Helen was the only child Jacobsen managed to send to college.

Helen married George Chapin, a lawyer, shortly before the family home was torn down in April 1929. In 1946, Helen visited the Mariners Museum and indulged in the visual feast of fifty-seven of her father's ship portraits exhibited together. She corresponded occasionally with Eldredge from the time of her father's death until her own on June 1, 1957.

Carl Jacobsen was the reserved member of the family, the handyman about the house: helpful and industrious. He also was a commercial artist. Though it is frequently asserted that Carl assisted his father painting skies and water, it has never been proven.

Edward Castens, a neighbor of the Jacobsens, said he remembers Carl painting water on a large canvas of a liner that Castens believed was the Titanic. Antonio may have had a contract for Titanic portraits; if so, it was aborted after the ship was lost.

Both Jacobsen boys went with their father on his sketching expeditions. "Alphonse remembered coming to Staten Island as a child on sketching trips with his father," said Anita Jacobsen. "He recalled seeing the wooden train sheds at Clifton where many ships were moored off shore." He also recalled the Brown's shipyard at Tottenville, Staten Island, where his father sketched. Theodore Loos, a seafarer who bought paintings from the artist, mentioned that his own mother remembered Jacobsen walking up the hill on Staten Island to deliver paintings, hand in hand with a small boy.

Anita quoted Alphonse's recollection of his father's personality as follows:

He was highly emotional. All that he had to do was to think of his first desolate Christmas in America...and tears would stream down his face. He had a fiery temper and often worked himself up to such a pitch that he would throw things about. One small copper kettle, that was kept on the stove to provide moisture for his paintings, was frequently heaved when things did not go right...Of course, after these outbursts he would become his old rollicking self, romping with the boys or teasing his wife. He was always nervous and energetic, rushed at whatever he did and did everything in a hurry. He worked from daylight to dusk. His family lived in constant fear that he would overtax himself especially when he ran to Clinton Avenue to get the trolley to Barclay Street Ferry with three or four paintings under his arm.

Such evidence of Jacobsen's abounding energy, ability, and personality makes it unpleasant to report on his declining years. Helen referred to "the tragic days of his growing old in the most ungraceful way, as is sometimes the lot of human beings." She said, "Long after, I learned of strange things he said to people; I have sometimes wondered at things he may have said to you [Eldredge] in those long hours you sat with him as he worked."

Eldredge was very jealous of Jacobsen's memory, and although he let it slip that the old man had a slight problem with alcohol, Eldredge refused to dwell on it. EIdredge had Jacobsen paint a portrait of the transport that took him to France. Eldredge said "it was so badly done that I destroyed it. Through the years I have regretted that I did not destroy the City of Athens and the State of Texas.... Both are examples of his failing coordination, a fact that he mentioned in his last letter to me."

In the letter, dated March 9, 1919, Jacobsen said, "I made a good living the past year by painting schooners, but business for shipping here was so bad that all orders stopped in October. It is just as good as I was quite unable to do good work. I found difficulty in concentrating my thots [sic] on work in hand such as taking proportions from Plan or Photo to enlarge on board."

It is poignant that Jacobsen was beset by financial worries toward the conclusion of a remarkably successful life. He was not provident and had saved little from more prosperous years. His wife Mary may have exercised control over expenditures while she lived, because his standard of living declined after her death in 1909. Sometime between 1909, when he could afford to send a daughter to college, and 1913, when he had fallen into financial trouble, the wherewithal to educate his sons had slipped away.

Want forced upon him the indignity of peddling his wares at the Seamen's Bank for Savings. He had to sell his collection of musical instruments and his precious books. Though it has been impossible to document, it is said that following Jacobsen's death, there was a sheriff's auction of his items at the family's Fultonham, New York vacation spot. Then in 1917, a fire destroyed much of an entire side of his home.

Jacobsen's last known correspondence was written to Eldredge on June 8, 1919, "Dear friend, we both will be glad to see you at the appointed time. Don't forget to get out at Division St., West Hoboken, N.J." It referred to what was likely Eldredge's last visit. Two years later, on February 3, 1921, Eldredge received a card: "Father died last night. Helen Jacobsen."

Jacobsen's only known obituary notice was preserved in Eldredge's files; it is a clipping from an undesignated publication. The initials "G.L.N.", which appear at its close, are almost certainly those of Captain George L. Norton, friend of Jacobsen and editor of the Marine Journal. His tribute to the artist follows:

Antonio Jacobsen, for over forty years a marine artist in this port, died at his home in West Hoboken Saturday night, February 2nd. He had been in failing health for a year or more, but attended to his business until a short time before his death.... Mr. Jacobsen's specialty was painting ships in oil on canvas, and he doubtless has to his credit more ship paintings than any other known marine artist of his time.
He never aspired to greatness in his profession but was a natural-born lover of the ocean, ships, and those who manned them from the quarter deck. Those who admired his pictures invariably criticized them favorably, as they were always correct in detail, even to the gaskets on the port furls of the royals.
He seldom ended his task for a captain with one picture of a ship, as they liked them so well they ordered two or three for the "home folks." He did his work so rapidly that he painted two or three in a day, consequently could make a profit in disposing of them at five dollars each, and no one but an expert would have believed they could be painted for that price and the work executed in less than a day.
I have a painting, hanging in my office where I write, that was executed by Jacobsen and presented to me as a Christmas gift some twenty years ago, representing a whaler homeward bound with a leading wind, all sails set, and deep-loaded with oil which had taken many months to capture and "try out." A whaling voyage is one of the most arduous that the mariner undertakes. If a lucky one, the genuinely happy hours are those spent when homeward bound with a fair wind. At the present writing I am wishing my deceased friend such a voyage into the Unknown. G.L.N.


About the author

At the time this article was authored, the late Harold Sniffen was curator emeritus of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA. He was associated with that museum from its start in 1931 and was responsible in large part for its holding the world's largest collection of Antonio Jacobsen paintings. He was the author of Antonio Jacobsen's Painted Ships on Painted Oceans.


About The Mariner's Museum

The Museum is located at 100 Museum Drive, Newport News, VA 23606 and is in a 550-acre woodland park with the five-mile Noland Trail around tranquil Lake Maury. Museum hours and admission fees may be found at the museum's website.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 3, 2009, with permission of the The Mariner's Museum, which was granted to TFAO on May 25, 2009. This article appeared in the December 1995 - January 1996 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jeanne Eubanks and Claudia Jew of The Mariners' Museum, and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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