Combat Artist

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<img data-cke-saved-src="sites/default/files/article/2006_6_66.jpg" src="sites/default/files/article/2006_6_66.jpg" alt="The brief, fierce 1812 action between two sloops of war, HMS Frolic and the USS Wasp.<p><span class=" body"="" height="239" width="280"> <p>During the age of fighting sail, artists painted ships and seamen in highly realistic fashion, and most of the paintings of them date from their own day. That day was a long one, but square-rigged wooden-hulled warships were a stable technology, and taste in depicting them was stable too.<span class="body"> </span></p><div class="insertable"> <div class="img-block"><img data-cke-saved-src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_66.jpg" src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_66.jpg" alt="The brief, fierce 1812 action between two sloops of war, HMS Frolic and the USS Wasp. The Wasp won." visible="yes" height="239" width="280"> <div class="caption"> </div> <div class="image-attributes"><span class="credit">james graham & sons, new york city</span><span class="image_id">2006_6_66</span><span class="rights"> </span></div> </div> </div> <p>During the age of fighting sail, artists painted ships and seamen in highly realistic fashion, and most of the paintings of them date from their own day. That day was a long one, but square-rigged wooden-hulled warships were a stable technology, and taste in depicting them was stable too. Willem van de Velde the Younger’s <span class="typestyle"> The Battle </span> <span class="typestyle"> of the Texel</span>, painted in 1687, doesn’t look all that different from Nicholas Pocock’s <span class="typestyle"> The Battle of Quiberon Bay</span> , painted in 1812.</p> <p>The best-known artist working this honorable vein today is probably Geoff Hunt, whose paintings grace the covers of Patrick O’Brian’s great series of historical novels, and Hunt is very much a realist. Like his predecessors, he focuses almost entirely on the ships themselves. Sheer accuracy counts for a lot in Hunt’s paintings, and there is much to be said for all that detail and precision: Square-rigged warships were the most elaborate, expensive, and impressive machines built across several centuries. They went a long way toward securing for Europeans the mastery of the world, and it is interesting to get a sense of their beauty and intricacy. Hunt’s works would probably have delighted the sailors who served aboard them. But while his ships look wonderful, the men who fought them shrink to insignificance, and we get no sense of the mental and moral world those men inhabited.</p> <p>David Fertig’s paintings would likely have pleased one of history’s greatest marine artists, J. M. W. Turner, but most of the people who lived in the era Fertig celebrates would probably have found them incomprehensible. Fertig’s inspirations are Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Nicolas de Staël, artists who worked long after Nelson’s day had passed. But his combination of form and content, which should feel at odds with each other, but don’t, wonderfully closes the historical distance between us and the Napoleonic Age that has for a decade been the artist’s only subject.</p> <div class="insertable"> <div class="img-block"><img data-cke-saved-src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_67.jpg" src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_67.jpg" alt="A Royal Navy officer." visible="yes" height="231" width="280"> <div class="caption"> </div> <div class="image-attributes"><span class="credit">james graham & sons, new york city</span><span class="image_id">2006_6_67</span><span class="rights"> </span></div> </div> </div> <p>Fertig, who is in his late fifties, grew up in a Philadelphia row house, about as far removed as a boy could be from the world he paints. But he came to feel close to it early, when at the age of eight he encountered the historical paintings of Géricault and Delacroix in a book about the Louvre. They kindled his first fascination with his current material—a fascination reinforced by subsequent childhood encounters with N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Frank Schoonover. His professional mentor was the American painter Robert Kulicke, described by Fertig as the man who gave him his eyes. Fertig works in a studio looking out over a stretch of New Jersey farmland unchanged since the era he has re-created so persuasively, and he prepares for his subjects by immersing himself in the literary and pictorial remains of their time. He studies the <span class="typestyle"> Naval Chronicle</span> (for generations the professional journal of the Royal Navy) and reads a great deal of history. Although he grew up adoring C. S. Forester, his main literary inspiration seems to be nonfiction; he loves Francis Parkman but has so far read only one novel by Patrick O’Brian.</p> <p>The startling result Fertig achieves comes from joining a modern way of seeing and painting with his archaic subject matter. Although his paintings can be in an indefinable but unmistakable way witty (that is somehow the effect of the flaring color of two battle ensigns in a predominantly white and gray-toned frigate duel), his juxtaposition of style and content is never ironic.