Museums at Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY



Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings from the Butler Institute of American Art


The beauty and mystery of the oceans and the majesty of the ships that sailed them is the subject of a new exhibition, "Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings from the Butler Institute of American Art," June 3 through August 6 at The Museums at Stony Brook. Featuring the best of historical ship portraiture and seascapes, the 68 works in the exhibition chronicle 200 years of America's love affair with the sea. (left: Thomas Hart Benton, Chilmark, 1938, watercolor, The Butler Institute of American Art)

The Butler Institute of American Art was founded by Joseph G. Butler, Jr., an early collector of marine paintings. His son, Henry Butler, and his grandson Joseph G. Butler III, successive directors of the museum, furthered the collection with the addition of many ship portraits, ship models, and seascapes. In 1919, Joseph Butler, Jr., made the decision to collect American works exclusively, and his heirs continued to build a collection that acknowledges both the artistry of builders of ships and the painters who documented them.

As harbor towns of early New England grew into centers of commerce and industry, the wealth of its merchant class grew to match. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, artists were commissioned to produce portraits of the sailing vessels that were instruments of this commerce, transportation and physical power. Thomas Birch, James E. Buttersworth and Duncan McFarlane (McFarlane was English) are among the 19th century artists in this exhibition who created some of the finest examples of this portraiture. (left: William Bradford, Afternoon on the Labrador Coast, 1878, oil on canvas, The Butler Institute of American Art)

Other artists were enamored by the seascape, which they saw as a sublime encounter of man with the natural world. Artists of the Hudson River School reveled in the immensity and drama of America's northeastern shores. The luminist James Hamilton' studied the setting sun in From Sail to Stream, and the effect is a nostalgic one -- nostalgia for the era of artistically crafted sailing vessels as steam powered ones replaced them

Humanity versus nature and the human relationship to nature also figure frequently in seascapes. The works of Robert Swain Gifford, Harrison Bird Brown and Edward Moran all represent the sea as either a destructive force or one with which humanity lives in a precarious partnership. The fishermen on the shore of Gifford's Cliff Scene, Grand Manan, continue to work even though the sea seems quite violent. (left: Robert B. Spencer, Competitor, n.d. , oil on canvas, The Butler Institute of American Art)

The works of the American Impressionists, in contrast to the earlier realists, are more gentle and poetic. William Trost Richards's Land's End Cornwall, and Alfred Thompson Bricher's The Landing, Bailey Island, Maine, both use the seashore as a subject for their studies of color, light and daily activity. By the turn of the century, the populace's interest in leisure had helped fuel an interest in shorelines as an artistic subject. (right: Augustus V. Tack, Seaside Scene, n.d., oil on canvas, The Butler Institute of American Art)

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 2/28/11

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