Reviewed | Judith Bonner on ‘The Coast and the Sea’

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on August 3, 2014

Linda S. Ferber, The Coast and the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America (New York and London: New-York Historical Society in association with D. Giles Limited, 2014), 104 pages, ISBN 978-1907804311, $30 / £20.

Reviewed for Enlade by Judith H. Bonner

Coast-and-Sea-jkt-02-13w-front2The New-York Historical Society, that city’s oldest museum, is celebrating its recent reopening after its lengthy renovation with a traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue by Linda S. Ferber.1 The exhibition features more than 60 artworks and artifacts, primarily paintings, including portraits, genre scenes, and marine and maritime scenes. Overall, the images document the development of the New York area with its harbor and its close relationship with the Atlantic Ocean, the great maritime highway for trade and immigration.

Works selected for the exhibition have their origins in the eighteenth century, beginning in 1728 and ending in 1904. Maritime-related artifacts include a vintage spyglass, scrimshaw, snuff boxes, and an 1816 silver presentation soup tureen commemorating acts of bravery during the War of 1812. The provenance of each artwork documents the development of the New-York Historical Society, as well as the city’s art collectors, their tastes, and their interests.

The exhibition features work by artists whose names are familiar, as well as those who are unfamiliar. The painters include Thomas Birch, Thomas Buttersworth, Carlton Theodore Chapman, Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Julian Oliver Davidson, Mauritz Frederick Hendrick De Haas, James Guy Evans, Robert Havell Jr., John Frederick Kensett, Rembrandt Peale, Francis Augustus Silva, and John Vanderlyn.

Several artists had nautical experience that informed their art in subject, rigging, and construction of the vessels. Buttersworth served in the British navy, while De Haas held an artist’s commission in the Dutch navy. James Guy Evans possibly served in the American navy. Chapman ran away to sea as a teenager; and Davidson sailed the globe, making sketches that provided visual sources for many years. Evident in these artists’ works is their understanding of the action of waves and atmospheric effects over the seas at different times of the day or season.

The marine subjects include frigates engaged in famous sea battles, working vessels and bustling port scenes, marine recreation scenes, portraits of heroic sea captains, and pioneering merchants. Marine scenes focus on recreation, shipwrecks, disasters, and military encounters, particularly those in the War of 1812 and Civil War. The exhibition spreads its reach down the East Coast, swinging farther south to the Battle of Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico and the Battle of Port Hudson up the Mississippi River about 100 miles above New Orleans.

Portraitists range from eighteenth-century painter John Wollaston to early nineteenth-century painters John Vanderlyn and Rembrandt Peale, the latter of whom executed a portrait of naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur in dress uniform and set against a dramatic stormy sky. Wollaston’s circa-1750 portrait of wealthy colonial merchant-shipbuilder Captain John Waddell, who owned a fleet of ships, sets the stage for the succession of ships’ portraits seen throughout the catalogue. Early portraits include personages having distinguished careers or an association with maritime enterprises. The sitter is often shown near an open window through which one views a conventionalized seascape or harbor scene with masted vessels. Other sitters are shown with maps, globes, compass, a spyglass, or other maritime instruments.

The catalogue is well researched and documented with a select bibliography. Explanations of the marine scenes are succinct yet vivid; the prose is fluid and often poetic. Ferber distinguishes between marine scenes—which focus on the pure seascape, its coast and environs—and maritime paintings. The latter, Ferber explains, emphasize human activity and other enterprises on shore or at sea. Her knowledge of nautical terminology and national history is evident throughout. She traces visual conventions from their development in seventeenth-century Holland, their passage into the British school of marine painting, and subsequent introduction into English colonies in the New World.

Ferber consistently places artworks within a broader historical context and, when appropriate, within a cultural narrative. Brief biographical sketches of artists trace their artistic development within the maritime tradition. Ferber discusses allegorical themes in paintings, as well as the effect that nostalgic longing for historically simpler times had upon the proliferation and re-creation of popular scenes celebrating heroic national victories and spirited naval encounters.

The book invites readers to the repeated examination of the images, some of which, like those illustrating the America’s Cup, are iconic. Truly memorable is a painting by Howard Pyle, A Privateersman Ashore (1893), shown in historically correct clothing and accouterments. The privateer stands near the Battery and Castle Clinton at the time of the War of 1812, posed and preening, with smoke from his cigar curling upward from the corner of his mouth as townspeople in the distance look toward him with disdain. The latter is a comment about the disapprobation citizens held for such freebooters, who preyed upon British ships.

Closing this maritime jaunt through history are two paintings. The first, by Andrew Meyer, shows President Grover Cleveland reviewing a naval parade in New York Harbor as the setting for opening ceremonies of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, with the Statue of Liberty clearly visible, as though she also stands in review of the parade. Lastly, in 1904 Chapman portrays the Great East River Bridge (now Brooklyn Bridge) over the East River, celebrating New York’s location on the rim of the Atlantic, the gateway to America.


1. Venues for exhibition include: The Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida (25 January — 9 March 2014); The Baker Museum of Art, Naples, Florida (19 April — 6 July 2014); Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine (January — May 2015); The Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut (6 June — 13 September 2015); and The New York State Museum, Albany, New York (24 October 2015 — 22 February 2016).

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Judith H. Bonner is Senior Curator and Curator of Art at The Historic New Orleans Collection.

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