Down To The Sea

I heard or seemed to hear the chiding Sea
Say, Pilgrim, why so late and slow to come?
Am I not always here … ?
… I with my hammer pounding evermore
The rocky coast, smite Andes into dust,
Strewing my bed, and, in another age,
Rebuild a continent of better men.
Then I unbar the doors: my paths lead out
The exodus of nations: I disperse
Men to all shores that front the hoary main. …
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Seashore”


At the height of his career—in 1885—the artist Edward Moran, then living in New York, launched a project that he considered the crowning glory of his artistic life. He would paint a series of thirteen pictures that would represent what he called the “Marine History of the United States,” from the first explorers up until his own time.

It was a natural theme for Moran: at the time, he was undoubtedly one of the most famous seascapists in the United States. The path to that eminence had had its beginnings in 1829 in a lowly weaver’s cottage in Lancashire, England, where the nearby Irish Sea provided the future artist with his first glimpse of a subject he would never tire of portraying. Edward Moran was the oldest son of a large family that included two other artists. His brother Thomas would become famous for his romantic canvases of the American West; another brother, Peter, would win renown as a painter of animals. At an early age Edward was put to work at the loom, but he found time now and then to sketch with charcoal.

In 1844 the Morans hopefully joined the thousands of poor English artisans then emigrating to the United States. They settled in Maryland, but the shore of the Chesapeake proved to be no more of an Eldorado than the shore of the Irish Sea, and the family was soon forced to fall back upon the weaver’s trade. This was not the promise that Edward Moran had hoped to find in America, and, still in his teens and without a cent in his pocket, he walked to Philadelphia in search of opportunity. He had—by chance—come to the right place. For most of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was the artistic capital of the United States, nurturing such talented artists as the Peales, Thomas Hovenden, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, and John Sloan.

After trying his hand at cabinetmaking and house painting, Moran again took up the shuttle, at the munificent salary of six dollars a week. And here might have ended another tale of disappointed expectations had it not been for a lucky break. One day Moran was surprised by the proprietor while drawing; instead of punishing the young man for neglecting his work, his employer recognized the artistic promise in the sketch and had the good sense to introduce him to Paul Weber, one of the city’s most prominent landscape painters. Weber took him on as a pupil, and later Moran studied with another Philadelphia artist, James Hamilton, who guided him to marine painting. Philadelphia had a strong tradition in that genre; the city had been the home of Thomas Birch, America’s first marine artist. Birch had died in 1851, but his canvases—many of which hung in the Pennsylvania Academy—undoubtedly were well known to Moran. One of them, Stephen Decatur’s Escape After Setting Fire to the Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, depicted an event Moran would include in his series.

The young artist was not long in attaining some recognition, and by 1862 he had sufficient funds to go to London and study at the Royal Academy. While there he was much influenced by the dramatic sea pieces of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and also by the historical painter William Clarkson Stanfield.

Moran soon returned to the United States and before long began to receive so many commissions that he could scarcely handle them. Almost all were related to the sea; indeed, a list of Moran’s pictures reads like a guidebook to America’s eastern littoral: Virginia Sands, A Squally Day off Newport, Massachusetts Bay, Off Block Island, Aloonrise at Nahant.

When Moran came to paint his great marine series, he organized it around the number thirteen, which he felt had a symbolic, almost religious, meaning for the country. A friend later explained his reasoning: