Side-wheels and Walking Beams

May 2017

Self-taught, the Bard brothers specialized in the painting of gleaming, accurate little steamboats


In 1827 James Bard, born in New York in the year of Waterloo, made his first steamboat painting, of the Bellona, the first steamer ever owned by Commodore Vanderbilt. The picture itself has since vanished, but young Bard, a mere twelve or thirteen when he selected his highly specialized career, never lost his childlike simplicity or his enthusiasm for the steamboat, until his death, seventy years and (by one probably exaggerated estimate) four thousand steamboat paintings later. For some years his twin brother, John, was his partner, but after his death in 1856, James kept at it alone, measuring, studying proportions, struggling as only an untaught man can to be faithful and exact.

It was a specialty within a specialty. There are no ocean liners, no large sailing vessels, no men-of-war, no clipper ships. Only a few of the big Long Island Sound and Boston steamers are shown, for the Bards specialized in the smaller boats—river steamers, excursion craft, towboats, the small fry of the Sound. Although they did not copy shipyard plans, as far as the slim record shows, they did much of their work for steamboat men—owners, captains, engineers —and seem to have submitted sketches for approval before taking up their brushes.

For all their skill with the boats themselves, the Bards (and only James is represented in our pages) had strong and always recognizable limitations. The badly drawn little people on board are always the same. The background is primitive and the perspective elementary, for every boat is taken broadside, going full speed with her prow cutting the water into bubbles, like so much sparkling soda. But what the eye does grasp makes up for all of that, as Harold S. Sniffen and Alexander Crosby Brown point out in the pamphlet, James and John Bard (The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia, 1949): “A typical Bard vessel stands out in vivid white, silhouetted against crude river shores, much as would a beautiful prima donna against an amateur stage set. We might almost credit him with purposely creating neutral sets upon which his splendid boats might stand out in contrast.”

Of the 350 odd Bard pictures tracked down to date by Messrs. Sniffen and Brown—some only in photographs of vanished oils—the largest collection is at the Mariners’ Museum, assembled by Elwin M. Eldredge. Others may be seen in their bright colors elsewhere, as our credits show, but certainly most have vanished, like the fine old boats themselves, aspects of a gentler age of travel. “Were it not for the pictures to be found here and there—and now fast disappearing—[so ran James Bard’s obituary notice of 1897] we would not know what beautiful specimens of steam vessel architecture our forefathers were capable of turning out.”

We are obliged to Messrs. Sniffen and Brown for the use of their pamphlet in preparing this article, and to C. Bradford Mitchell of the Steamship Historical Society for his help with the captions.

—Oliver Jensen