The Unexpected Artistry Of A New England Shipmaster

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IN JUNE OF 1976 THE MAINE MARITIME Museum in Bath received a letter addressed simply to “The Curator.” It was from two local women named Carrie Groves and Gladys Castner and described some nautical material including a “large color drawing of a ship” that the two women felt belonged in a museum. Museums, of course, receive hundreds of such offers every year, and in the overwhelming majority of cases the material turns out to be of no particular value.

So it was almost in the spirit of performing a necessary chore that the director and a trustee of the museum followed up the letter later in the year, stopping by the women’s house in Bangor after finishing up other museum business in the area. Stored upstairs was the kind of collection that museum curators dream of—the complete, pristine navigation book of Capt. Francis Rittal, an eighteenth-century American shipmaster, along with his telescope, his portrait, and an account book containing a multitude of information about his vessels, cargoes, and business transactions. The large colored drawing of a ship turned out to be a watercolor that Captain Rittal completed in 1803—a picture that now takes its place as the oldest Maine-related artwork in the museum.

Further research by the museum staff revealed that Rittal was born in Dresden, Maine, in 1764, fought in the Revolution, married in 1788, and fathered eight children. (The handsomely illustrated navigation book, opposite, may have been intended as a kind of textbook for his sons.) While nothing is recorded of Rittal’s earliest travels, his account book begins in 1794 with reports of four voyages along the East Coast aboard the ninety-two-foot schooner Sally , including such details as the wages he paid his crew, the cost of repairs and wharfage, and the dividends paid to the ship’s shareholders.

From 1795 to 1819 the account book traces Rittal’s career aboard larger schooners and square-riggers on trips to the West Indies and ports in Europe. Between voyages, Rittal returned to Maine and took up his pen and watercolors—the works on these pages were done either in 1803 or 1805, years for which no sailings are recorded in the account book.

The date of Captain Rittal’s death is in dispute; it may have been 1819 or 1823. Afterward his effects were stored away by relatives, protected, fortunately, from moisture and light. So in addition to offering an unusually complete picture of the life of a shipmaster in the early years of the Republic, the Rittal Collection represents early American folk art at its best —the primary colors of the sketches are still rich and vibrant.

—Jane Colihan