Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Mint Museum of Art

Charlotte, NC



From Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings

July 24 - December 5, 1999


From the myth of Moby Dick and the heroics of Commodore Ferry to the devastation of Hurricane Hazel and the confrontation of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Americans have always been captivated by the oceans that border it and the ships that transport them. It's in the blood. The continent's earliest population arrived by crossing the sea, whether as ancient Egyptian mariners, as some speculate, or migrants taking the Bering Strait end-around. Centuries later, this enormous land of bounty was colonized and brought into the world economic stream via the great ships of Europe.

To this day, American expressions are peppered with nautical terms - Bill Clinton rode the political waves; Hugh McColl navigated Bank of America through a series of mergers; Tom Glavine sailed a fastball; CBS' 60 Minutes is anchored atop the ratings. Katharine Lee Bates wrote the praises of America the Beautiful "from sea to shining sea" in 1893 while Grant Hill takes the ball "coast to coast" heading into the new millennium.

The sailing vessels of the 17th through 19th centuries were instruments of global economy, transportation and physical power. From Ship to Shore: Marine Paintings presents two centuries of American maritime paintings and ship portraiture. The exhibition is on display at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art from July 24th through December 5th, sponsored by the Mint Museum Auxiliary and Scott Jaguar.

The 67 works, from the collection of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, portray various themes and artistic movements that parallel the evolution of our country. Subjects include the wealth of young America's merchant class, sailing vessels as icons of power, scenes of immigrants arriving on the shores of a new homeland, the leisure activities of coastal life, the sea as a destructive and powerful force and the coast as a serene and meditative place of unmatched beauty.

"The American obsession with the sea serves as a necessary complement to our obsession with the landscape," stated Todd Smith, Mint Curator of American Art. "Artists have not only chronicled this obsession, but have actively sought to direct this interest. From colonial days to the present, the sea has provided inspiration, escape, refuge and adventure and this exhibition presents these myriad uses in aesthetic form."

The harbor towns of early New England grew into centers of commerce and industry as depicted by Thomas Birch's Ship Houqua (Whaling) and Duncan McFarlane's merchant ship Alice Couce. Merchant traders were among the first of the nation's new class of self-made wealth.

Early American ship portraiture followed the Dutch tradition of a broadside view, accurately and painstakingly detailed. By the mid 19th century, ship portraiture paid homage to evolving engineering that enabled faster trans-oceanic travel and signified human triumph over nature. The prow of James E. Buttersworth's Ship Valparaiso slides through the water with full sails and streaming flags, illustrating the record-breaking speed of clipper ships. A similar pride of achievement is evident in Antonio Jacobsen's paintings of the next generation of ships - the steamers Navahoe and Kroonland.

Marine paintings went from stoic, meticulous documentation to a staging of dramatic action as seen in Robert Swain Gifford 's Cliff Scene, Grand Manan in which fishermen ply their trade while battling storm-whipped whitecaps. Humanity versus nature was a prevalent theme in literature and the arts in the later half of the 19th century. The sea as a destructive, precarious force is captured by Edward Moran in New Castle on the Delaware, where high winds, pounding waves and jutting reefs threaten a ship seeking the safety of harbor in a storm.

Painters figuratively disembarked from ship to shore as artists of the Hudson River School, and later the luminists, presented seascapes of the American shoreline wilderness as a sublime encounter with the natural world.

Artists reveled in the immensity and drama of America' s northeastern shore. Exhibition examples include the mist-shrouded, sheer cliffs of Land 's End, Cornwell by William Trost Richards and the striking interaction of light and clouds in Joseph H. Boston's Silver Moonlight. Ships became mere silhouettes to the spectacular sunset of James Hamilton's From Sail to Stream, a work whose power is the nostalgia it inspires.

Marine paintings reflected America's interest at the turn of the 20th century. The middle class sought waterfront retreats to escape the congestion of large cities. Poetic, romantic and idyllic became vogue as reflected by Alfred Thompson Bricher's The Landing, Bailey Island, Maine.

Nature itself became a background setting for the introspective figurative paintings of William Glackens, George Grosz and Augustus Vincent Tack in the early 20th century. Tack's impressionist work Seaside Scene provides a solitary escape for the female figure strolling among the colorful vegetation of a seaside cliff.

Coastal life continued to provide inspiration with the dawn of modernism as seen in Thomas Hart Benton,'s Chilmark, Stuart Davis' cubist Gloucester Harbor and the active, kinetic rendering of New York City' s harbor in Reginald Marsh's The Normandie.

From Ship to Shore: Marine Painting is a visual. chronology of American attitudes toward our oceans and waterways. The exhibition also provides a unique study opportunity of American artistic development.

Images from top to bottom: James E. Buttersworth, Ship Valparaiso ,1855; Harrison Bird Brown, Grand Manan Island; Thomas Hart Benton, Chilmark, 1938; Reginald Marsh, Along the Waterfront.


Note of 12/19/00: A reader recently wrote concerning Thomas Birch's Ship Houqua (Whaling): "In my research of the last Master of the whaling ship Houqua, Captain Jacob Brown, I serendipitously encountered your site which refers to a painting of that ship by Thomas Birch.... Capt. Brown was Master of this vessel for its last three voyages from New Bedford, MA to the Pacific. On the last voyage, the ship was lost on an island in the Sea of Othotsk, near Kamchatka, Russia. The Captain had his wife aboard, as was common practice. She gave birth to a daughter at sea, probably aboard the Ship Canton, which rescued the crew and most of the Houqua's cargo of whale oil. The crew was returned to Honolulu, in September of 1851, where the Browns spent the rest of their lives. The daughter is my wife's great great grandmother. Those three Browns and many of their descendants are buried in the Oahu Cemetery in Honolulu. Also, do you know of any image of the Ship Canton? Thank you for any assistance you can give us in this quest." Ken and Adrienne Sexton

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

rev. 10/18/10

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