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The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America

On view through January 25 - March 9, 2014 at The Society of the Four Arts


The Society of the Four Arts is the first museum to mount The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America -- a new traveling exhibition highlighting the New-York Historical Society's diverse holdings of marine and maritime artworks and artifacts. The exhibition is part of the New-York Historical Society's robust international outreach initiative, Sharing a National Treasure: The Linda S. Ferber Traveling Exhibition Program. (right: Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1842), Escape of the H.M.S. Belvidera From the U.S. Frigate President, ca. 1813-14, oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Irving S. Olds, 1963.58)

On view through March 9, 2014, the exhibition features more than 60 of the most important American marine paintings and artifacts New-York Historical's large and impressive collections. The paintings, ranging in date from 1750 to 1904, are by eminent artists such as Thomas Birch, John Frederick Kensett, J. Francis Silva, and Carlton T. Chapman, among others. Highlights include spirited paintings of famous sea battles, and romantic portrayals of ships in storms, as well as portraits of naval heroes and pioneering merchants, like the aptly named Preserved Fish of New York.

Maritime artifacts include elaborately engraved whale's tooth scrimshaw from the mid-19th century, a mariner's octant from 1840, and a handsome silver presentation tureen commemorating acts of bravery during the War of 1812.

Other features include paintings executed by 19th-century Chinese artists working in the European style portraying the harbors at Canton and Hong Kong, as well as the portrait of a clipper ship captain. There are views of the Hudson River (actually an estuary of the Atlantic) and the bustling Port of New York, as well as works reflecting Gilded Age nostalgia for the great age of sail and featuring the legendary naval frigate USS Constitution, known as "Old Ironsides."

The exhibition is accompanied by catalog, The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America, by Linda S. Ferber. Published by the New-York Historical Society in association with D Giles Limited, London, the fully illustrated catalog contains104 pages. Linda S. Ferber, Ph.D., is Senior Art Historian, Museum Director Emerita at the New-York Historical Society

The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America will be on view at the Baker Museum (Naples, FL) April 19-July 6, 2014.


(above: Junius Brutus Stearns (1810-85), Fishing in a Catboat in Great South Bay, 1871, oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of C. Otto von Kienbusch, 1964.21)


Wall text panels from the exhibition

Since the earliest voyages of exploration that form the nation's primary foundation myth, the destiny of the United States has always been linked to the oceanic world. From the time of the earliest settlement, great harbors have been the source of commercial wealth and port cities the settings for cosmopolitan ideas.
Wealth generated by maritime enterprises also supported the nation's cultural development, prompting the rise of schools of marine and landscape painting as well as portraiture. It is also interesting to note that a number of the artists represented in this exhibition were themselves mariners at one time.
The venerable collections of marine paintings and maritime artifacts at the New-York Historical Society are a reflection of this early history and culture. This landmark exhibition and accompanying publication are drawn from these deep holdings to introduce an important body of paintings and objects, many of which will be new to visitors.
The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America is part of the N-YHS traveling exhibition program, "Sharing a National Treasure." The exhibition and publication are supported by the New York Community Trust Joanne Witty and Eugene Keilin Fund, Irma R. Rappaport, and the Thomas and Diane Jacobsen Foundation.
These paintings ranging in date from 1750 to 1904 allow us to explore the rich visual traditions of both marine and maritime painting and, in the process, demonstrate the often permeable boundaries that marry rather than separate them. The maritime tradition places emphasis on documenting seafaring enterprises on the shore or at sea as sites for human activity. In contrast, the marine painting (or seascape) focuses on subjects in which the coastal and oceanic environment itself takes center stage.
Both of these visual conventions had been largely invented in seventeenth-century Holland. Expatriate Dutch maritime masters in turn later founded a British school of marine painting that was also transmitted to England's colonies in North America. After the Revolution, these conventions would flourish, inspiring works by academically trained artists as well as those working in vernacular traditions, be they sea painters or portrait painters.
After the Revolutionary War, American coasts and shipping were protected by the fleet of a newly established United States Navy. Vessels carrying names like United States and Constitution inspired national pride. Harbor defenses in major port cities protected the nation's maritime frontier, especially from 1812 to 1815, when the United States again contested British power during the War of 1812. These massive military structures were depicted in prints and paintings as patriotic landmarks.
Many battles during America's so-called Second War of Independence were fought at sea, greatly stimulating the production of marine painting in both countries. A new generation of heroes joined the founding fathers and patriots of the Revolution in the American portrait pantheon. Likenesses of heroes, their ships, and their battles were often replicated in popular prints and on ceramics (and snuffboxes); their victories were commemorated in ceremonial silver vessels.
Dramatic paintings of shipwrecks and storms at sea offered powerful subjects for romantic seascapes in the sublime mode. There, the adversary was nature, and shipwreck served as a universal symbol of life's trials and vicissitudes. The vessel in stormy seas is the actor in a marine theater engaged in a battle again weather, waves, and looming rocks. These create a threatening yet thrilling environment that epitomizes the sublime in which the fate of the vessel (and those aboard) is uncertain.
The pervasive theme of shipwreck also mirrored the awful reality of frequent disasters at sea. Spectacular shipwrecks were international news by the early nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1850s, the United States Mint struck medals to recognize those who saved the lives of shipwrecked passengers and the mariners whose lives and livings depended on the sea. Vocational portraits of those in the maritime world often included views of their ships as well as the instruments that signaled their callings as merchants, ship captains, and explorers.
The vast coastal environs of New York Harbor presented infinite opportunities for artists to portray inland waterways that were alternately maritime and terrestrial. In fact, those waterways were literally "arms of the sea" that had swallowed the ancient Hudson River thousands of years before, when glaciers melted and the sea level rose, flooding the prehistoric coastal plain. In the process, one of the world's great natural harbors was formed, as was the estuary that we know today as the Hudson River, which carries the Atlantic's tides some 153 miles into the interior.
Such rich permutations of seascape and landscape have inspired printmakers, painters, and poets for more than two hundred years. The historic sites and varied scenery along the Hudson were co-opted into a landscape vision of national patrimony. The unique setting of the city at the river's mouth offered artists opportunities to combine seemingly endless configurations of land and sea, city and ships.
The second generation of Hudson River School painters added coastal subjects to their repertoires and summer sketching itineraries, trekking all along the eastern coast from New Jersey to New England. Traditional picturesque touring routes were expanded to include the seaboard, reflecting modern trends of tourism, as old colonial ports were reinvented as quaint resorts for the urban populations of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
As tourism boomed in the second half of the nineteenth century, maritime specialists added popular seaside recreations to their list of subjects. Sailing was embraced as a leisure activity and a sport. These paintings also reflect artists' growing interest in light as an expressive medium, demonstrated in the brilliance with which many capture the fleeting effects of weather and time of day to create poetic waterscapes.
Gilded Age nostalgia during the 1880s and 1890s inspired commissions to depict historic naval battles of the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In addition, beginning with the United States Centennial in 1876, a series of national commemorations expressed a collective nostalgia. These public displays were powerful cultural and political agents for rebuilding a national fabric after the rupture of the Civil War and Reconstruction. National commemorations of Columbus's voyage in 1892 and 1893, along with the United States Navy centennial in 1894, turned American eyes back to the Atlantic.
These observances generated widespread interest in history. Popular sentiments were driven by the nation's increasing industrialization, most in the maritime realm by the dominance of steam, iron, and steel over wood and sail. All converged to stimulate the writing of histories in books and magazines, whose publishers enlisted the talents of the finest American painter-illustrators to re-create major events in maritime military history.

(above: Carlton Theodore Chapman (1860-1925), Engagement Between the U.S. Frigate Constitution and H.M.S. Guerriere, 1895, oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, The Naval History Society Collection (John Sanford Barnes Foundation), 1925.113)


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