This summer, three Connecticut museums are featuring maritime-themed exhibits, totally unplanned but wonderfully summerish and coincidental. Today, I had the pleasure of joining one of the curators, Ben Colman, at the Florence Griswold Museum. You know how much I love to dig into paintings, so I’ll share a few stories here.
This show features paintings from the permanent collection, but predominantly from the Museum of the City of New York, one of my old stomping grounds (where I worked with the Currier & Ives collection). Ben shared that these paintings give us a window into attitudes toward nature and human-made landmarks, ironic perhaps in paintings about the sea. First, almost all the paintings celebrate the new technology of steam sailing, whether as a paddlewheeler, ferry, or steamer.
By 1827, about 20 years after steam-powered shipping changed New York forever, the competition was fierce, both for business and the tourist trade. Steam ship lines were competitive and needed something sexy to attract customers away from rivals. You gotta love James Alexander Stevens who created an on-board art gallery, long before galleries and museums ever existed in America.
Basically, he commissioned 12 paintings on panels (apparently sturdier than canvas and could withstand rough sailing) for the main cabin of the Albany. These panels would inform passengers of key sites along the way up the Hudson that they wouldn’t want to miss. An early, graphical tour map, if you will.
Not-yet-famous Thomas Cole contributed, as did Thomas Birch, with two surviving panels in this show. Awesome. In this View of New York Harbor from the Battery from 1827, you might make out Staten Island, Sandy Hook, and Castle Garden at the entrance to the harbor, sites passengers would have seen as well.
Lots of sailing ships. Maybe you can just make out the steamer in the rear. The future is coming.
How much fun the oddball sites are, too, where today, we go, “huh?” Like Youle’s Shot Tower by Jasper Cropsey, known for his luminous landscapes, but here a darker, early work from 1844.
What the heck is a shot tower? Well, this would have been one of the tallest landmarks around, so was quite notable. A screen would have been placed at the top of the tower, 175 feet high, then molten lead poured through the screen. The lead would drip through the screen (yes, really), and those drips would then fall 175 feet (yes, really). By the time they landed, gravity and force would have shaped the lead into shot, or bullets. Shot towers were essential for early defense.
Here’s the backstory, as if that wasn’t enough of one, that I love. Cropsey and his colleagues would have gotten their training in Europe, often on what was called a Grand Tour, visiting key sites and for artists, studying in ateliers in Paris and beyond. Romanticism was the fashionable style, and artists searched for the poetic, the moody, the mysterious, the intense feelings. In Europe, this meant castles, ruins, historical subjects.
Well, the “wild west” of the American art scene didn’t have any castles. The shot tower would have been a close substitute. Note Cropsey’s moody lighting and rich color scheme, evoking a sense of grandeur for what would have been a recognizable necessity, but not particularly an structure of architectural repute. Fun, eh?
I also like Michael John Boog’s Hell Gate from 1888.
There’s a lot going on in this painting. First, note the triangular tower in the mid-ground left. That’s an arc tower. In an early form of electric lighting, the tower was built in 1884 for arc lights, which put out incredibly bright beams from each of nine arcs, acting like a lighthouse. Only problem, the beam was blinding. Geez. Substitute one problem for another.
So why do you need a lighthouse-type arc tower there in the middle of that placid scene? Because it took two dynamite blasts to get it that way. Talk about your tourist attraction. Apparently 100,000 turned out to watch the confluence of three bodies of water get dynamited into submission. Known as a serious sailing hazard since the 1600s, the point where the Harlem and East Rivers converge with Long Island Sound created whirlpools that deviled sailors. The Dutch word for whirlpool apparently sounds a lot like what the English eventually called it, “Hell’s Gate.”
By the 19th century, sailing was central to moving New York’s economy, and dangers couldn’t be tolerated. One blast apparently calmed things down, and a second worked on removing the rocks underneath. This painting shows the view from the Queens side, post blasts, looking at the remaining rock outcropping. Fisherman might have been the only sailors to complain, as the bass apparently were gone with the booms.
Lest you think sailing was all fun and wondrous sites, there was steerage then, too, particularly for the 200 or so passengers who would endure cramped quarters below for 41 days on a packet ship crossing the Atlantic. Packet ships carried packages and people, notably from Old Lyme, CT through New York, to London, on a regular schedule. Sixty affluent passengers could have a state room, but as John Rolph shows in this engraving from 1851, most people would escape the hole for fresh air on deck.
How much easier daily marine life was for the fisherfolk. I love this elegant, c1845 painting by Victor Audobon, son of John James, who painting with the same bravura as the Hudson River School, but was never one of the club. See that same sweep of landscape, dwarfing people as they scuttle about their daily business, here wrestling with fish. Ah the sea, land, and sky. Perfect for a summer reverie. Can’t you just smell it?