The Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's College

Annapolis, MD



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


The Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College will present an exhibition of 65 paintings of American historical ship portraiture and seascapes from the 19fh and 20th centuries. "Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings from the Butler Institute of American Art" will be on display August 23 through October 15, 2000.

The paintings illustrate 200 years of artistic response to the beauty and mystery of the oceans and their shores, and the ships that cross them. Ships are the only mode of transportation so abundantly and powerfully depicted throughout art history. From the portraits of early ships to the modern color studies of the interplay between land and sea, this group of works presents a visual chronology of American attitudes toward our oceans and waterways, as well as an overview of American artistic development.

Historically, as harbor towns of early New England grew into centers of commerce and industry, the wealth of their merchant classes grew to match. During the 17th through the 19th centuries, commissioned artists produced portraits of the sailing vessels that were the instruments of this commerce, transportation and power.

In this tradition of ship portraiture, a vessel is presented in a broadside view, accurately detailed. Robert B. Spencer's Competitor is a good example of this art form: the full sails, streaming flags, and the prow slicing through the water illustrate the speed of the record-breaking clipper ships. Its arrival into port seems victorious. Mid-19th century portraits paid homage to evolving engineering that enabled faster travel, and signified human triumph over nature. (left: Robert B. Spencer, Competitor, n.d.)

This theme of humanity versus nature, prevalent in mid- and late-19th century literature and philosophy, also figured frequently in the seascapes of Robert Swain Gifford , Harrison Bird Brown, and Edward Moran. In their works, the sea is represented as either a destructive force or one with which humanity lives in a sometimes precarious partnership. In contrast, at the same period, artists of the Hudson River School, and subsequently the luminists, presented the land and seascapes of the American wilderness as a sublime encounter with the natural world. In William Bradford's Afternoon on the Labrador Coast, a ship is silhouetted against a massive white iceberg. Even though the sea is calm, human presence is dwarfed by the natural world.

By the early 20th century, most successful artists depicted a poetic seascape, one that is more often serene, romantic, or idyllic than threatening. This is illustrated in the meditative and moving seascapes by Joseph H. Boston, whose work The Silver Moonlight presents a haunting image of a night sky over a calm sea. (left: Joseph H. Boston, The Silver Moonlight, 1915)

Many American Impressionists chose the seashore as a subject for their studies of color, light, and daily activity. Their works represent the shore as a site for both leisure and commerce. As industrialized cities became crowded, waterfront retreats became the destination for the growing middle class. Reginald Marsh's watercolor Along the Waterfront shows practically no water, but features a boat docked at an industrialized harbor, with cars parked alongside. (left: Reginald Marsh, Along the Waterfront, 1938)

As the 20th century progressed, occurrences of the sea as a background for a reclining, active, or introspective figure in the foreground became more commonplace. The works of Augustus Vincent Tack represent these figure studies, as in his oil painting Seaside Scene, portraying a woman on a bluff overlooking the sea, her long dress blown by the wind.

In contrast to these introspective studies, Reginald Marsh's The Normandie is a representation of the active American scene. Every element in this work denotes motion; the female figures stride powerfully into the frame, and the New York City harbor bustles with energy and motion.

The opening reception and family program for "Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings from the Butler Institute of American Art" will be held on Sunday, September 10 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Art educator Lucinda Edinberg will lead a tour of the exhibition followed by a related interactive workshop for children.

Painter Lee Boynton will give a gallery talk entitled "With the Wind in My Face: Plein air Marine Painting" on Tuesday, September 19 at 4:00 p.m. Dr. Melissa Wolfe, Curator at the Butler Institute of American Art, will give a lecture on "Marine Painting in American Art History" at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 27. Art educator Lucinda Edinberg will offer a lunchtime tour of the exhibit on Wednesday, October 4 from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.

This exhibition has been organized by The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and coordinated by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services. Funding for this exhibition has been provided in part by Anne Arundel County, the City of Annapolis, the Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County, the Maryland State Arts Council, Members of the Mitchell Art Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Clare Eddy and Eugene V. Thaw Fund, and Carleton Mitchell.

Readers may enjoy these earlier marine genre articles:

Also, The Peabody Essex Museum has a worthy online catalog of Marine Paintings and Drawings.

Read more about Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's College in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

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. 3/18/11

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