National Museum of American Art
The Bard Brothers
In 1827, 12-year-old twin brothers James and John Bard jointly painted their first ship portrait for Cornelius Vanderbilt. "The Bard Brothers: Painting America under Steam and Sail," an exhibition opening on May 30 at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, celebrates the fruitful output of the Bards with 37 key paintings and watercolors of the vessels that plied their native New York waterways during much of the 19th-century. The exhibition marks the first major showing of the Bard's work in 20 years.
Organized by The Mariners' Museum of Newport News in Virginia, the exhibition will remain on view through Sept. 28. Its presentation at the National Museum of American Art is supported by Mobil Corporation and by the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.
Also included in the "Bard Brothers" are a timeline to show how shipping developments paralleled other industrial advances, an early printed panorama of New York Harbor, and three patent models for steamboats. Interestingly, the federal government convened a commission in 1790 to settle a patent claim between rival steamboat inventors. The U.S. Patent Office, which ultimately emerged from that commission, was originally housed in the building now occupied by the National Museum of American Art.
Born in New York City in 1815, the twins came of age at the time that steamboats began replacing sailing vessels as a faster and more efficient means of transporting goods and people. Initially the Bards worked collaboratively, often signing their works "J & J Bard." Bard paintings fall into roughly three periods:
* Between 1837 and 1849, the brothers primarily produced watercolors that were nsophisticated in palette, scale and rendering. While these works were presumably done by both men, the nature of their collaboration is still unknown.
* When John entered a period of personal decline in 1849, James continued to work independently, producing increasingly assured watercolors and paintings.
* After 1865, James worked primarily in gouache and preferred a more restrained style, and is said to have produced thousands of ship portraits, creating a detailed pictorial inventory of the many prominent vessels navigating the Hudson River and New York Harbor. However, late in his career as the railroad gained in ascendancy and his health deteriorated, commissions declined. Two watercolors of the ship "Saugerties" -- his last commissions -- are dated 1890.
"This exhibition will delight and charm all who see it, particularly those enamored of ships and 19th-century maritime history," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art. "It also invites a closer look at the way the Bard brothers combine folk and fine art traditions while capturing a fascinating chapter of the nation's past." Boat lovers will find a treasury of vessels from towboats to racing yachts. The paintings also record a vibrant period in maritime history when steamboats or paddle wheele rs -- James Bard's favorite subject -- were used increasingly for both commercial shipping and pleasure excursions. The paintings were most often commissioned by ship owners, captains, agents and builders, and they were frequently displayed in commercial settings such as offices or taverns near the waterfront. The portraits commemorated not only ships, but also the patrons, attesting to their success in business.
Bard paintings also evoke nostalgia for a less complicated and more optimistic era. John B. Hightower, president and CEO of The Mariners' Museum, says, "With splashes of water, shiny brass finials, and richly colored flags and pennants, the Bards captured in paint the essence of a particular time in history when ships held dominance on our country's waterways. With the country's largest collection of Bard paintings, The Mariners' Museum is pleased to share some of these prized works with a wider audience through this traveling exhibition."
The untutored quality of the Bard watercolors and oil paintings, however, should not obscure their merit as works of art. While the paintings have a certain naive quality, they also attest to the brothers' attention to detail, precise and extensive knowledge of boats, skill as draftsmen, and creativity in adapting certain conventions for ship portraiture. With only a few exceptions, ships in Bard paintings are portrayed moving from right to left with flags unfurled so that a ship's name is prominently displayed. They are most often rendered in bright colors and centered against identifiable regional landscapes with water in the foreground.
Gerhard Kurz, presi dent of Mobil Shipping and Transportation Company said, "This exhibition is a natural for Mobil's support, given the corporation's long connection to the maritime industry. We at Mobil are delighted to celebrate the Bard brothers' work, which captures an important and colorful time in our country's history, the transition from sailing ships to steam vessels and the ensuing growth of world trade, during the emergence of the industrial era."
During the brothers' lifetime, only two watercolors by James Bard were exhibited, although the paintings were included in books on steamboat history published at the end of the century. More recently, however, works by the Bards, particularly James Bard, have fetched record prices at auction.
The exhibition is organized by leading Bard authority Tony Peluso, who is guest curator for The Mariners' Museum. Deputy chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan is the coordinating curator for the Museum of American Art premiere of the exhibition. Tony Lewis, curator of paintings, prints, and drawings, is the organizing curator for The Mariners' Museum.
Following its showing in Washington, "The Bard Brothers" will travel to the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City (Oct. 25, 1997 - Feb. 1, 1998), The Mariners' Museum (Feb. 28 - May 17, 1998), and the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York (June 13 - Sept. 20, 1998).
Images and text courtesy of National Museum of American Art.
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