Marine painting enshrines the love of ships and the sea, and in the best examples one can almost feel the salt spray and hear the snap of the sails.
The field of marine painting, in theory, is as vast as the ocean itself. Ships and the sea have been favorite themes of artists since ancient times. Greek vases and Roman murals depicted boats bearing men and gods on errands historical or mythological. Renaissance painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to paint panoramic views of naval battles, such as his 1598 view of the engagement in the Gulf of Naples. Even Rembrandt, usually a landlubber, couldn’t resist painting a dramatic Storm on the Sea of Galilee (now sadly lost, a victim of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston in 1990). Romantics such as Turner or the Hudson River School painters loved the way water interacts with the sky at the horizon, the atmospheric effects of moisture, and the reflection of a setting sun in a lake or sea.
But when collectors in this country speak of “marine painting” or “maritime painting” they are most likely referring to an American tradition of art originating in the early 19th century and continuing today, in which boats—whether yachts, merchant vessels, or battleships—take center stage. While collectors of marine painting also relish the aquatic beauty of nature, they tend to be involved in the world of sailing and to have a strong interest in its history. “Marine art never goes away,” says Howard Godel, a New York dealer who has long specialized in the genre. “There are always sailors and yachtsmen who have major-league boats and want to collect these paintings. Some will actually display the art on the boats; some won’t. The demand never disappears. Certain artists may cycle in and out, but as for the genre itself, it’s a forever thing.”
One of the biggest names among classic marine artists is James E. Buttersworth (1819–94). Born in England, the son of a marine painter, Thomas Buttersworth, James emigrated to the U.S. in about 1847. He worked for the firm of Currier & Ives—a reminder that marine art in those days was not just for the elite collector but was disseminated to the population via inexpensive reproductive prints made from paintings. Buttersworth specialized in portraying clipper ships, then the fastest vessels in existence. His Clipper Ship Black Warrior (circa 1853), available from Godel, skillfully depicts this medium-sized ship, which was launched in 1853 from the shipyard of Austin & Company of Damariscotta, Me., and sailed to Australia and South America. Buttersworth chose a low vantage point to paint the Black Warrior, in order to bring the viewer alongside it in the water, so to speak, and also took care to also devote some bravura brushwork to the dark, whitecapped ocean itself as well as the pink-tinged clouds. Nature and the works of man get equal time in the best marine paintings.
As the clipper-ship era came to an end in the 1860s and ’70s and the less romantic steamship came to dominate, Buttersworth turned his attention to the graceful yachts of the leisure class. He documented many America’s Cup races in the course of his career. Collectors wanting a top Buttersworth painting will have to get in line. “Buttersworth is always in demand,” says Godel, “but finding large, important ones in great condition is getting to be like finding a rare colored diamond. They were plenty around 20 or 30 years ago; now far fewer.”
Another mainstay of the 19th-century American school of marine painters is Antonio Jacobsen (1850–1921). He emigrated from Denmark to Hoboken, N.J., right off New York Harbor, and unlike Buttersworth he embraced the new technology as a subject, to the point where he was called “the Audubon of Steam Vessels.” Unlike Buttersworth, he was willing to take a volume approach; he is said to have completed some 6,000 paintings. Sea captains were his preferred clients. “Jacobsen never goes away because he’s a household name and was so prolific,” says Godel. “You really want to try and get him before 1905, when the water is crisp and the skies are really well done, painted on canvas rather than on board. The early period is worth double and triple what the later ones bring.”
Another sub-genre of American painting that falls within the category of marine art is the Luminist School. A later iteration of the Hudson River School, the Luminists (not called that at the time, only by 20th-century art historians) concentrated on still, mirror-like waters, sunsets, and ships at anchor in harbors, all with the goal of conveying a deep and glowing light and a profound sense of peaceful stillness. The top Luminist is generally considered to be Fitz Henry Lane (1804–65), whose works are now extremely scarce on the market. Lane had a female student, Mary Blood Mellen, who collaborated with him (some paintings are signed with both their names) and carried on painting in his style after his death. Her Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore (circa 1858) is very similar to a Lane painting from about four years earlier, A Rough Sea.
William Trost Richards (1833–1905) was a Philadelphian disciple of the Hudson River School who painted many seascapes. His Sunrise, New Jersey Shore (1881), for example, is a sublime celebration of the interpenetration of sea and land at the beach. Water-soaked sands glisten as an almost moon-like sun glows just above the horizon. The only ships visible are some near-microscopic white sails in the far distance. Elizabeth Stallman, principal of MME Fine Art in New York, which handled the painting, points out that paintings inspired by a sheer love of the beauty of seascapes do very well in the market, as do those made in the service of various maritime pursuits. “We have found the market for our American marine paintings to be sound,” says Stallman, “and one of our biggest sales last year was a gorgeous William Trost Richards seascape. Thankfully, our love of the sea is a universally shared affection, and when depicted with wonderful skill, the results delight every level of astute collectors as well as public institutions.”
Paintings from the early to mid-20th century, executed in a more Impressionistic style, are also popular. Irving Ramsey Wiles’ White Sloop, Peconic Bay (1907), for example, shows off the artist’s brushy style, which has often been compared to that of John Singer Sargent. Another East Coast Impressionist who painted many marine subjects is Guy Wiggins, a student of William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. In his Morning, Gloucester (1915), the dappled reflections off the water steal the scene, and the overall effect resembles that of Childe Hassam. Some prefer the looser painting of the American Impressionists, but in general the current marine market seems to favor the crisper style and more descriptive approach of the 19th-century masters.
Another reason these painting are so cherished, according to Godel, is that they are now irreplaceable records of times past. “It’s really good that we have artists like Buttersworth and Jacobsen,” he says, “who painted enough works that we have recordings of so many American ships. Many were burned or wrecked, but there’s an image of almost every one. So these paintings are not only beautiful, they’re documents of American history.”
By John Dorfman