Like the English and Dutch, nineteenth-century Americans were deeply concerned with the sea. It was a source of food, a broad highway for transportation of goods, and a means of access to the world outside. The art of ship painting, therefore, was a logical development of the time, and it met the needs of a people whose livelihood came from ships and salt water.
After the turn of the century, the amount and variety of traffic at sea produced several regional styles of marine painting that reached high-water mark with the mid-century and the peak of the days of sail. On the French and Italian littoral, in Liverpool and other British ports, in Antwerp - or Flushing, its port - in Copenhagen, schools of marine painting developed. The watercolorists of the Mediterranean school were perhaps most prolific. Another group with particular local characteristics was active in Canton and Macao, China, and later in such
ports as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Western influence ameliorated and altered the style of these Chinese artists through George Chinnery, an English artist who arrived at Macao in 1825.
By the middle of the century most of the deep-water ports of the East Coast of the United States also had their professional painters of ships and ports. Only a few, however, became proficient enough to get beyond the artisan's level. Nearly all depended upon the patronage of ship-owners, merchants, ship's officers or their families, and they were expected to produce recognizable photographic likenesses of the family vessels or of familiar seaports. That they succeeded is obvious by work still extant in our marine museums and private collections. Few nineteenth-century historians considered painters of ships creative artists, and only the exceptional could hope for recognition. Because of this isolation from the main stream of art, most of the ship painters had to develop their styles and methods independently, and it is to this that they owe some of their major virtues as well as their failings. A few were artists of high caliber whose contribution is important even though it had little effect on the general course of painting in their own time.
The earliest of these was Michele Felice Corne (c.1765-1845), who came to Salem, Massachusetts, from Naples in 1799 and brought with him a style of painting in tempera which had been popular and successful in such ports as Naples, Genoa, and Leghorn. His paintings of ships and naval actions which survive show considerable knowledge of the subject, and he had a vivacity of style that only the Italians and the French painters such as Claude Joseph Vernet achieved. The Peabody Museum in Salem has some of the best of Corne's work. There were some earlier engravers and limners of ships and shipping, and portraits of merchants often contained background views of the sea and ships, but no consistent style or substantial number of ship pictures can be attributed to an artist resident in America before Corne.
Salem had been a logical place for him to settle (he later left it for Boston and Newport) since it had become one of the premier American ports in the years following the revolution and had developed a considerable trade in the Mediterranean. George Ropes, Corne's pupil and follower, also attained a measure of success in Salem; and other artists, less well known, found enough demand there to keep them busy. With the decline of Salem as a port after Jefferson's embargo and the War of 1812, it is necessary to look elsewhere for the more successful and popular painters.
Thomas Birch (1779-1851) was the English-born son of a painter, William Birch. The family came to America in 1794 and established itself in Philadelphia. Birch painted in oil with considerable freedom, and developed a personalized style reminiscent of the French Romantic marine painters, but built on a reasonably accurate portrayal of the ships themselves. His often-repeated versions of such actions as the ‘Constitution and Cuerriere’ were as popular with seafaring men as with the general public, since they were acceptable presentations of the way in which ships maneuvered as well as dramatic story-telling canvases. Birch's dexterity in the handling of paint is obvious when one examines the scale in which he worked. Several of his paintings are forty by sixty inches or larger, yet he could work as well in the more familiar size, twenty by thirty, seen in the naval actions. There are virtues, too, in his clarity of color and the cleanness of his palette. He had none of the inspiration that is obvious in the work of an Allston, but he was probably the first ship painter in the States to achieve wide popular recognition and to profit by the public interest in engravings from his paintings.
A contemporary of Birch's, but less well known, was John S. Blunt (1798-1835), who worked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during the twenties and was in Boston about 1830. The origin of Blunt's style is not altogether clear, but it is certain that there are similarities in matter and mood to the work of the better Dutch seventeenth-century painters - Van de Velde, Van de Cappelle, and their ilk. In the few Blunt marine canvases now available for study, the method of painting is competent and interesting. The pigment is usually applied thinly and surface glazes are frequently found. The colors are transparent but often muted. Few of the canvases are loaded with extraneous detail. They are simply composed and harmoniously arranged, and in their quiet way are paintings of considerable worth.
Next in order of date is Robert Salmon (working 1800-1840), certainly one of the most interesting and gifted of the ship painters before 1850. Between 1828 and 1842 Salmon worked in Boston, and there he promptly became the leading painter of ship portraits. He had left an active and successful career in England and Scotland, where he was painting as early as 1800. In his own record of paintings done in these years, a copy of which is now in the Boston Public Library, Salmon makes no mention of any specific training in art but speaks of his admiration for the paintings of Turner, De Loutherborg, and Ibbetson, all of whom were exhibiting in the English academies during Salmon's early years. Their influence appears in his work in the form of strong color contrasts and sometimes exaggerated or highly stylized forms of clouds and sea when he aspires to some effect of intensified mood.
For almost the first time in American marine painting, Salmon attempts some complexities of composition and is completely at ease in problems of foreshortening, of light and shadow, and of harmonious arrangement of several vessels on a canvas. Although Birch had painted naval actions and had sometimes shown several ships, they were usually presented in a traditional manner. Salmon attempted diversity and succeeded very well with it. Salmon must also be credited with the first good American paintings of whaling vessels. A half dozen of these are listed in his record, and one of his best pictures is a whaling scene now in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It would appear that Robert Salmon was the first in this country, excepting only Thomas Birch, to make scenic harbor views, in place of the single ship portraits, acceptable to the merchants and seafaring men who were his principal clients. How well he did this is shown by his record of several hundred paintings produced in Boston between 1828 and 1842, when he left to return to England.
The importance of whaling to the New England economy can be gauged by the rise of Nantucket and New Bedford in the years prior to 1850. The well-to-do merchants of these ports provided a market for a considerable number of whaling prints and paintings. Strangely, Nantucket developed no group of painters indigenous to the island; but New Bedford became the focal point for several artists of some talent. Among these was William Bradford (1823-1892) of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Bradford had some training from a Dutch painter. Van Beest, and in the years before 1850 painted many ship portraits, including the familiar whalers whose home port was New Bedford. In the later work of Bradford a significant factor in marine painting appears, as it does also in the work of his contemporary, FitzHugh Lane. This is the artist's concern with light as an envelope surrounding and shaping the objects that he paints. The early men were content with formal and conventional effects of light and shade painted in the traditional manner, and were not interested in observing these effects as they are seen in nature. With Lane and Bradford, the effort to create an illusion of light as it actually appears was sincere, and successful to an astonishing degree. A full decade before Impressionism appeared in France, at least three American artists - Bradford, Lane, and Martin J. Heade - were attempting to solve the problems of light in a three-dimensional setting and in their own separate ways. His environment undoubtedly shaped the career of FitzHugh Lane (1804-1865). Artists today find Gloucester one of the most paintable spots on the New England seacoast, and so Lane must have found it in the early years of the nineteenth century. Gloucester was an active port when Lane, as a young man, was apprenticed to the lithographer Pendleton; and throughout his life he never wandered far. He became a draftsman of great skill, showing from the beginning a quality of sharp observation and visual memory that enabled him to paint the shape and mood of things with a realism that went beyond photographic literalness. Toward the fifties Lane succeeded Salmon as the leading New England painter of ship portraits.
Without the formal training that most painters require, Lane learned to see nature as the Impressionists were to see it a few years later. He did not paint it with their prismatic, broken-color methods, but he viewed it in terms of light; and all his forms were conceived as masses made three-dimensional by planes of light and shadow. Beyond his understanding of light and its effect on surfaces was his appreciation of color. His sense of color harmony is evident in all his paintings. There are no extreme values, no use of forced contrasts for effect only cool, serene, fastidious selection of natural coloring as he saw it; and his eye seldom played him false.
Although Lane is thought of as a ship painter, it is apparent now that he has a place in the history of mid-century American art that is shared only with Martin
Johnson Heade as a forerunner of Eakins and Homer, and that he has a stature only recently fully appreciated. The clipper ship era bred a crop of painters and print-makers to keep abreast of the demand for portraits of these fast and popular vessels. The best known and certainly the most accomplished of these, J. E. Buttersworth (1817-1894), an Englishman, was active about 1850-1875 in the New York region. Unlike Lane and Salmon, Buttersworth remained primarily a ship portrait painter, but he developed a very pleasing color pattern which seldom varied from one picture to another, and he was a precise and meticulous draftsman who made a ship look as her owners wished her to look. Although there is no complete record of the clippers painted by Buttersworth, it is certain that many of those built in the New York area between 1850 and 1860 were subjects of his brush, and a fair share of the Boston-built craft were done by him as well. When the popularity of the clipper waned, Buttersworth turned to yachting and in this field gained almost proprietary rights. No other artist painted so many of the pleasure craft beginning to appear on the American scene in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, as Buttersworth. All his canvases were felicitous in design and color, and he was a master of scale.
Although there were other painters in plenty, the men mentioned here provided the variety and the skill that set the pace for the field, and it is in their canvases that the best work of the first fifty years of marine painting in the nineteenth century is to be seen. The later years were dominated by such men as Eakins and Homer; and as the age of sail came to an end, so the ship painters became men of smaller talent whose main function was taken over by the photographer and whose services were in less and less demand as the century came to its close.