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The Case For Modern Marine Art

June 2024
3min read

In some ways it’s better now than when square-riggers were rounding the Horn

Most of us find maritime art pleasantly modest, direct, uncomplicated, explicit. It follows no cult, its language is free of the clamor and exclusivity of recent art movements; it undertakes unblushingly the task of pleasing the viewer instead of illustrating the artist’s inner turmoil. It may not always be J. M. W. Turner or Winslow Homer, but it is art nonetheless: it deals with elemental and universal subjects, and in viewing a good example, one sees and feels something more than the literal scene, just as with an Edward Hopper picture of an urban street.

Marine art has had a curious history in America. It experienced a considerable vogue for three-quarters of a century, with the work of artists like Fitz Hugh Lane, Robert Salmon, Thomas Buttersworth, and Antonio Jacobsen. Then it slid into a long decline. Today marine art seems to be enjoying a rebirth. A number of factors have contributed to its revival—certainly the Bicentennial helped, with Operation Sail’s parade in New York Harbor. Nautical museums in New York, Mystic, Salem, Newport News, San Diego, and San Francisco began to receive more attention. Interest and participation in pleasure boating exploded.

But such rebirths are not unusual in the world of art. What is exceptional about marine art is that it has remained virtually unchanged for almost two centuries. Most painters today are still portraying the same subjects in much the same way as Lane and Jacobsen did back in the last century.

Historically, a majority of ship pictures show the vessel broadside to, or almost; viewed from the leeward side under a quartering breeze, the courses (lowest sails) furled to reveal the deck arrangement and some of the rigging; all other canvas set; the ship heeling slightly, to illustrate the sheer; heading in the direction of the sun, which is slightly to leeward so that the forward part of the sail is in full light. That is a reasonable description of a typical ship portrait, whether painted in 1860 or this year.

Still, the best of today’s marine artists are not simply copying nineteenth-century work. Here (above, right) is the Red Cross Line’s recordbreaking Atlantic packet, Dreadnought , recorded by Antonio Jacobsen (18501921), paired (above, left) with the same ship as portrayed by John Stobart, one of the best of today’s marine artists.

Most of Jacobsen’s paintings were done on assignment (he did sixteen of Dreadnought ) for people who had a specific interest in a particular ship. They wanted a portrait , and, as with portraits of people, a ship portrait usually prettied up the vessel with fresh paint and new sails, white and unpatched. Jacobsen’s ship is in sharp focus. Every detail of rigging is shown, although some of it would be indiscernible to normal eyes at the distance depicted. The main course is furled to reveal the deck structures. Viewed from leeward, the graceful sheer is strengthened and sails are shown in full sunlight. The innocuous sky, quiet sea, and absence of shoreline or other vessels are deliberate, to avoid distraction from the ship, which fills most of the canvas.

Stobart painted a single picture of Dreadnought , and not to anyone else’s direction. The ship’s master, Samuel Samuels, was famous for hard driving, and that is the way Stobart shows her. She is in softer focus, headed almost directly toward the viewer, with a fine bow wash to dramatize her speed. She fills only a third of the canvas; other ships in the background give depth to the scene; sea and sky are more interesting and colorful; the sails are shown in reflected instead of full sunlight, with some of them shaded.

Except for antiquarian interest, which of course is valid, the work of most of today’s professional marine artists compares favorably with that of their better nineteenthcentury counterparts. As many or perhaps more contemporary painters have had some kind of firsthand experience with ships and the sea, although those who rounded the Horn aboard windjammers are few indeed. But whatever the artists lack in actual experience aboard the vessels they paint is balanced by the enormous amount of research done. Modern artists do not have to rush their work to make delivery to a ship about to sail with the tide. There is time to prepare canvas, board, or paper properly. Most have had at least some academic training, so draftsmanship and composition are, overall, better. Materials are better too. Surprisingly, we see fewer anomalies now than in the work of even the best nineteenth-century marine artists.

Although nineteenth-century marines still sell better than twentieth, there are not enough good nineteenth-century paintings to meet the demand. Museums and galleries need new material. Collectors need to discover new and less expensive talents. (A painting by Chris Blossom sells for $7,000 to $10,000; a first-rate Buttersworth might bring up to $150,000 at auction.) Right now a core of splendid painters has chosen to concentrate on maritime subjects, thereby making available to a new and wider market fine examples of one of America’s noblest artistic traditions.

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