Combat Artist

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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.

<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. He admires his subjects without sentimentalizing them, and the modernity of his technique always foreshortens the distance between us and those long-dead soldiers and seamen, while not once making them look like moderns in fancy dress.</p> <div class="insertable"> <div class="img-block"><img data-cke-saved-src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_68.jpg" src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_68.jpg" alt="Fertig ashore: a splendidly accoutered French aide-de-camp goes about his martial business." visible="yes" height="323" 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_68</span><span class="rights"> </span></div> </div> </div> <p>But their dress <span class="typestyle"> was</span> fancy, and Fertig depicts naval and military costume that ran to brilliant colors crowned by huge hats, flecked with bright brass buttons and crossed with pipe-clayed white straps, selecting just enough detail to evoke that fighting-cock plumage without ever suggesting the loving fussiness of a carefully painted lead soldier. His paintings somehow convey the fact that the men in all this finery were simply wearing working clothes. His subjects look beautiful but never strange. His ability to show us their elaborate clothing with such economy, with a mere handful of visual gestures, somehow makes us feel that we may know more about that long-ago age than we realize.</p> <p>For instance, Fertig can suggest with a scribble of lines at the waist of a cavalryman a sense of the detail that might make the viewer think of a sabretache or a cuirass or some other gorgeous, half-forgotten word, but he can also reduce complex structures to simple, powerful masses. The great marine painters exulted in the gilt and carving of a warship’s hull, but Fertig, painting the American sloop-of-war <span class="typestyle"> Wasp</span> and HMS <span class="typestyle"> Frolic</span> in a famous duel during the War of 1812, reduces the hulls of the two ships to brutal slabs, reminding us of the sheer mass of even a small warship. His technique can be intensely modern; one admirer described a work of his as “a Rothko with a boat in it.” You can see the texture of the paint, which is rarely the case with the tradition he is updating. With his often muted colors and a very few shapes Fertig can powerfully summon up men as well as battles. The bluish black of an officer’s coat atop the white of his trousers, the comparative immensity of a dark hat with a bit of flesh color for the face beneath it, the simple horizontal of an extended spyglass—and we are looking at a wholly persuasive Capt. Sidney Smith, almost certainly one of the chief inspirations for Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. Two white splashes and a pair of blue ones are men in shirtsleeves watched by brother officers as they fight a duel with sabers on a beach. The tiny, spare painting wonderfully captures the murderous vigor of a low, lunging thrust.</p> <p>Fertig paints a version of the era’s formal portraits too. The faces looking out from them are young, particularized, competent—and very close to us. When Fertig’s eye and hand imagine it, the past may be a different country, but they do nothing differently there.</p> <p><span class="typestyle"> Fredric Smoler</span> writes often for <span class="typestyle"> American Heritage</span> .</p> <p></p> <p></p></div></div>