By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
When King George IV approached J.M.W. Turner in 1823 and commissioned him to paint Trafalgar, the most important naval engagement in British history, the artist rose to the task. He invested The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 with all the drama and tragedy the subject demanded, showing that the glory of a military win is inseparable from the toll paid in blood.
Unfortunately, the painting’s emotional qualities sailed past many navy men, who were distracted by Turner’s inclusion of different events from the multihour battle in one narrative scene and were offended by his artistic license. In 1829, five years after Trafalgar’s unveiling, it was removed from St. James’ Palace and given to a hospital for ailing sailors.
The incident illustrates the curious situation of the genre of marine art. Its practitioners labored to satisfy patrons who prized nautical accuracy over everything else. But there has always been another public that loves ships and the sea and values paintings on those themes that artists have infused with power, soul and other merits that can’t be measured. Even at the time Trafalgar was painted, “there were two distinct audiences for marine views, and they wanted different things from them,” says Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight curator of maritime art and history at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Marine art (sometimes called maritime art) is, fittingly enough, a fluid category. It covers a wide range of material; pretty much anything that alludes to the sea can qualify. The term could refer to ancient Greek urns depicting the ship of Odysseus, the Bayeux Tapestry or Marsden Hartley’s rendering of a wave crashing against the shore. In the United States marine art reflected something critical to the national life of the 19th century, a time when our harbors and rivers played the roles that airports and highways do now. And while tales of the Western frontier loom large in the story of America, ships might be even more important to it. Both of the national creation myths feature ships: The first stars the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and the second is about the Mayflower. Two of the greatest American novels, both written in the 19th century, take place on the water: Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. Samuel Clemens was a former riverboat pilot who used a bit of jargon from his old profession as a pen name and made the Mississippi River just as much of a main character in his classic saga as the escaped slave Jim and the young runaway Huck.
The origins of American marine art date back to 17th-century Holland, where captains, heads of shipping companies and others who reaped their riches on the waves gained an appetite for pictures of naval battles, yachting and ports, as well as for ship portraits—paintings that capture a specific vessel in detail. The pattern of interest in marine art dovetails with a nation’s mastery of the seas: The Dutch reigned in the 17th century, the British in the 18th and the Americans in the 19th, and each country’s seafarers hungered in turn to celebrate their primacy through art. While these patrons insisted on accuracy, many fussed out of devotion to the truth, as they defined it. “They had a strong love of the sea, a lot of these people,” says Joseph Vallejo, director of the Vallejo Gallery in Newport Beach, Calif. “It was more than just a job. They were proud of their ships.”
Marine artists whose names and works live on share certain commonalities. “Their pictures are atmospheric, and they capture a real time and an artistic mood,” says Alan Granby, co-owner of the Hyannis Port, Mass., gallery Hyland Granby Antiques and coauthor of the forthcoming book Flying the Colors: The Undiscovered Masterpieces of 19th-Century American Marine Art (Mystic Seaport Museum and Hudson Hills Press). “They go beyond a mechanical colored drawing to evoke a narrative and tell a story.”
The Dutch passed the marine-art baton to the British in the 1670s when a father-and-son pair of painters with the same name, Willem van de Velde, accepted King Charles II’s invitation to foreign artists to live and work in England. The influence of the Van de Veldes reached as far as Turner, who, according to one of his early biographers, saw an engraving after a work by Van de Velde the Younger and exclaimed, “Ah! That made me a painter.”
Britain’s handoff to the U.S. was less straightforward than the Dutch-British transmission. Throughout the early 19th century British artists traveled to America, settling there for decades or for life and influencing their American counterparts. Hundreds of painters took up marine art, but far fewer possessed the talent to meet their patrons’ needs and create something that transcends time. For this reason, and perhaps because marine art was not aimed at collectors in general, art-world chroniclers ignored marine painters until fairly recently, and biographical information on even the most important of them must be pieced together from legal documents and similar sources. The greatest American marine painter of all fell into such obscurity that for decades, art historians were calling him by the wrong name. Only five years ago researchers in Massachusetts discovered that he wasn’t Fitz Hugh Lane but Fitz Henry Lane.
Lane is now famous outside marine circles as an exponent of Luminist painting, a style that arose among the second generation of Hudson River School artists around 1850. Though information on his life is scanty, we do have the impressions of the American art critic Clarence Cook, who wrote about visiting the artist in Gloucester in 1854. Stating that Lane’s name (which he gave as “F.H. Lane”) “ought to be known from Maine to Georgia as the best marine painter in the country,” Cook summarized his strengths and weaknesses: “Lane … has earned money thus far by painting ‘portraits’ of vessels for sailors and shipowners. It is owing to this necessity, perhaps, that he has fallen into the fault of too great literalness of treatment, which I have mentioned as characterizing some of his earlier works; but with the rapid advance he has made in the past four years, there is no longer any fear that he is incapable of treating a subject with genuine imagination.”
His incandescent canvases of Boston Harbor, Cape Ann and the Maine coastline secure his place at the apex of American marine art. “They are technically incredible, romantic, dramatic, elegant—Lane really has all the components,” says Mindy Moak, an owner-partner at MME Fine Art in New York. His paintings command healthy sums. A View off Thatcher’s Island, Gloucester, With the Bark “Eastern Star” (circa 1853) garnered $825,000 at a Northeast Auctions sale in Portsmouth, N.H., in August 2005; an 1860 canvas, Ship in Fog, Gloucester Harbor, earned $904,500 at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York in May 2002; and Skinner set the record for the artist in Boston in November 2004 when an 1853 painting, Manchester Harbor, sold for $5.5 million.
Close behind Lane on the list of marine greats is Robert Salmon, who sailed from England in 1828 and lived in Boston until the 1840s, when he appears to have returned home. Lane was certainly influenced by Salmon and based at least one work, The Yacht “Northern Light” in Boston Harbor (1845) on a Salmon sketch. Tantalizingly, Lane and Salmon both worked for the same Boston lithographer, but historians cannot prove that they met. “I think it’s justified to say that Salmon made Lane a better painter,” says Michael Florio, director of Quester Gallery in Rowayton, Conn. “Robert Salmon was, technically, the best painter of ships on our shores. Lane inherited his skill from Salmon. He would not have achieved what he achieved without Salmon’s technical skills.” Collectors are particularly keen on Salmon’s Boston Harbor scenes. An 1843 oil on panel simply called View of Boston Harbor fetched $552,500 at the aforementioned Phillips sale, while A Schooner With a View of Boston (1832) sold for $508,500 at the same sale. Both went for more than double their high estimates.
James Edward Buttersworth, a third-generation marine painter, left England in 1847 to settle in West Hoboken, N.J. (now Union City). From that point near New York’s bustling harbor, he witnessed the heyday of the clipper ship and the rise of recreational yachting, two marine-art subjects that were popular then and have only grown in popularity since, as illustrated by two New York auctions in December. Sotheby’s sold an undated Buttersworth, The Clipper Ship Sunrise, in New York on Dec. 3 for $116,500. The next day, Christie’s auctioned a pair of canvases that he painted around 1875, Two Schooners Racing in Heavy Seas and The Dauntless, for $302,500. “He created great skies along with action scenes of the New York Yacht Club,” says Vallejo, adding that Buttersworth’s renown among club members led him to “paint almost every owner’s yacht.”
Danish-born artist Antonio Jacobsen moved to West Hoboken in 1880 and was active well into the 20th century, generating as many as 6,000 works, mostly ship portraits. Unsurprisingly, his output is regarded as uneven, especially that of his late career, when he is said to have recruited family members to handle non-ship-related details of paintings. “A lot of people snub their noses at him, but Jacobsen was an extremely capable artist,” says Granby. “He did paint basic, cookie-cutter ship portraits, but he also did some fantastic art when he felt like it. He did some great yacht races that some mistake for the work of James Edward Buttersworth—they’re that good.” Northeast Auctions sold an 1889 Jacobsen, Racing Yachts Flying the New York Yacht Club Pennant, for $22,000 in August 2008 in New Hampshire, and four months later in New York, Sotheby’s sold The Devon at Sea, an 1879 ship portrait, for $31,000.
James Bard, a ship portraitist who was almost as prolific as Jacobsen, concentrated on the paddle steamers that traversed the waterways of 19th-century America. The art world files him under the folk-art heading, though his paintings certainly qualify as marine art. Bard and his twin brother, John, were born to an English father and a Scottish mother in New York in October 1815 and collaborated on their first artwork at 12. They worked as a team until late 1849, after which only James’ signature marks the ship portraits. Researchers have yet to learn why the brothers parted ways.
Bard achieved his feats of accuracy by visiting shipyards and making notes on what he saw. He died in 1897, claiming to have completed more than 3,000 works. Bards have earned six-figure sums at auction: Steamboat “James W. Baldwin” (1861–62) sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1998 for $200,500, and an 1867 canvas of the steamboat Chrystenah fetched the same sum at Sotheby’s three years earlier.
Ships lost their importance in American life when the oceans ceased to be the fastest route for moving cargo from one continent to another, yet the appeal of marine paintings has hardly faded. Many marine art dealers confirm that collectors who sail or own vessels are in the minority—a quarter to a half of the clientele. “People who don’t even collect marine art want to have ship portraits and harbor scenes in their homes because of the sense of romance, the 19th-century spirit, the sense of risk and enterprise and all that,” Granby says. Robert Piatti, manager and maritime researcher at Vallejo Gallery, says, “On any TV show with a law office, there’s almost always a broadside (ship portrait). A lot of American fortunes were built on the whaling industry and ships. It’s part of our culture.”
The market for paintings of contemporary vessels is limited. “I’ve seen some awesome freighters and cargo-type ships,” says Piatti, “and I’ve managed to place a few of those. Who is the audience? People in that industry.” Indeed, most contemporary marine artists thrive by painting vessels that no longer exist. Donald Demers, a 53-year-old artist based in Eliot, Maine, estimates that 75 percent of his works feature obsolete ships and boats. His Off Jamestown, a seascape from 1988 with a schooner in the background, fetched $24,000 at a July 2006 auction at Christie’s New York, and galleries tend to sell his works for $15,000–40,000.
Demers, who quit art school in favor of a position on a square-rigged vessel in a sail-training program, says that in addition to artistic skill and a personal understanding of what it is like to be on the sea, marine painters “need to find the facts to fulfill a painting. It’s a narrative art form. It’s almost impossible to do a painting without a historically accurate storyline.” He believes that about a third of his clients sail and another third are maritime history buffs. Though he spends a fair amount of time immersed in research, the pedants who dogged his forebears now harass him. “I call them rivet-counters,” Demers says, adding that he’s “never had an exhibition when I haven’t had to field a question” from their camp.
His paintings glow with a love for the sea, but he anchors it to an understanding of the lives of sailors. “I try to put myself in the mindset by reading,” says Demers, “and by simple ruminations on how they ate lousy food and how the pots and pans smashed around the cabin. It’s not part of the details of my paintings, but through my hand, it filters into the paint.”
The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Through Sept. 7, 2009
Marine & Oriental Export Art
Eldred’s Auction Gallery, East Dennis, Mass.
Marine, China Trade & Sporting Art Auction
Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H.
Catherine Dail Fine Art, New York
Donald Demers, Vose Galleries, Boston
Eldred’s Auction Gallery, East Dennis, Mass.
Hyland Granby Antiques, Hyannis Port, Mass.
MME Fine Art, New York
Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Conn.
National Maritime Museum,Greenwich, England
Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H.
N.R. Omell Gallery, London
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Quester Gallery, Rowayton, Conn.
Royal Exchange Art Gallery, London
Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt.
Vallejo Gallery, Newport Beach, Calif.