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A Painter Of Floating Property

July 2024
4min read

Antonio Jacobsen, the most prolific of all American marine artists

“Ship portraiture” is a unique form of painting, modest in purpose but exacting in execution, long scorned by serious artists yet calling for particular knowledge and skills often beyond the ken of the fine artist. The specialty developed during a period when ships were growing mightily in size, complexity, speed, beauty, and grace. When the American sculptor Horatio Greenough first saw a clipper ship under full sail, he exclaimed, “There is something I would not be ashamed to show Phidias.”

The earliest American paintings of ships appear mostly as backgrounds for portraits of owners and masters or as amateur efforts. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, however, European artists specializing in ship pictures came to this country, and they soon acquired American-born students, protégés, and imitators. Thomas Birch left England for Philadelphia in 1794, Michel Corné arrived in Salem from Naples in 1799, the Scotsman Robert Salmon landed in Boston in 1828, and James Buttersworth arrived from England in 1850.

In 1871 Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen came from Denmark. These are unlikely given names for a Dane, but he was descended from a long line of violin makers, and Jacobsen was inflicted with the names at his christening in 1850 in honor of Antonio Stradivari, Nicolò Amati, and Gasparo Bertolotti da Salò. Young Jacobsen settled for Antonio. He was trained as a musician, becoming expert with violin, viola, and cello, but his greatest interest was always ships, sailors, and the sea. He spent most of his free time on the quays of Copenhagen, staring at sailing ships and steamers, asking questions, sketching and painting.

At twenty-one, fleeing conscription, he emigrated to America, where, after an audition, Leopold Damrosch hired him as a violinist for the New York Symphony. But Jacobsen evidently didn’t care for his colleagues. Most of them were German, and Denmark was not on cordial terms with Germany in those days. He soon quit and took to hanging around the Battery, where people looking for work during the 1870s often gathered. Prospective employers came to the park seeking maids, cooks, coachmen, or other servants. Young Jacobsen would amuse himself while waiting by sketching passing ships. One day a Marvin Safe Company executive noticed and liked his sketches. After a stint of painting bucolic scenes on safe doors, he caught the eye of an Old Dominion Steamship Company official. The man suggested he turn to painting ships, and young Jacobsen was launched on his lifelong career.


Success came quickly, and in 1880 he moved with his wife, Mary, to a large house in West Hoboken (later called Union City), New Jersey, with a block-square lawn and garden, looking across the Hudson toward Manhattan

Nervous and active, he rushed at everything he did, working from daylight till dusk. No one knows just how many pictures he turned out in his half-century of active work; certainly it was more than any other artist of his time. He often boasted that he could finish a painting in a single day; in fact, a friend reported that he could do three pictures in two days. These most probably were paintings of steamships on the highly competitive transatlantic run, to be used in hotel lobbies, travel agencies, and ticket offices that considered themselves too exalted for prints or posters.

His customers were for the most part seamen rather than landsmen, and they would brook no artistic license. The buyer wanted a permanent record of his vessel, a pictorial replica.

In this, Antonio Jacobsen excelled. Not that artists like Buttersworth were less accurate. They were, however, perhaps a bit less dedicated to the domination of the picture by the ship itself, perhaps a bit more ambitious, more conscious of other trends in the world of art, and certainly less prolific. Jacobsen said repeatedly, “I am not an artist, but a painter of floating property; of ship portraits. ”

His first step after receiving a commission was to make a detailed pencil sketch extending over a number of pages in a linen-covered notebook. His sketch of the yacht Utowana , for example, stretched over four pages, with notations on scrollwork, locations of scuttles and ventilators, portlights, scuppers, and flags.

His sea conditions were appropriate to the waters in which the ship he was painting sailed: big waves with a long interval for transatlantic ships; shorter, steeper seas for sounds; quiet water for harbors and rivers. Bow wash, wake, or paddle wash was keyed to these conditions, not exaggerated. During his most successful period, he painted his ships rising sharply on the scend of one of two or three big seas, though in the beginning and at the end of his career he often used a choppier surface.

Jacobsen was certainly the most businesslike of his fellow ship portraitists and, in his heyday, the most financially successful. He usually signed his work with his address as well as his name and received many orders as a result. As his sons, Carl and Alphonse, grew older, they helped color in the sea and sky on mass orders. It was said that he kept a backlog of semifinished pictures, ready for him to add the ship, which may have been true in his later career. He always salvaged what he could; for instance, when the Titanic , which he had already blocked out, went down, he was able to change her to the Olympic .

During his prime the artist charged between $100 and $150 for his paintings, the price depending on the amount of detail and time spent. But by the turn of the century, lithography had taken over most of the market, and Jacobsen’s steamship commissions began to wane. He switched to picturing sailing ships, pilot schooners, tugboats, and yachts. Often he would deliver ten or fifteen paintings at a time to a dealer. Once he sold ten pictures to a Fulton Street gallery owner for a total of $150. Right after the Panic of 1907 he sold a picture for five dollars. Low prices, falling demand, and ill health all hurt the quality of his work—and the subsequent reputation of the man known in his own time as the “Audubon of Steam Vessels.” He continued to paint until nine months before his death in 1921.

In one of his sketchbooks Antonio Jacobsen had written in Spencerian script a farewell to an era he had loved and seen die: “Gone is the Clipper, with her studding sails and skysails, and moon sail and ringtail driver and Jamie Greens and Jib-o-jibs. No more than a painted ship on a painted ocean remains of that great Merchant Marine …”

He did his part to leave us, at least, a painted ship that was true to life.


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