Navigating the Stormy Seas of Maritime Art Collecting

An engraving of the “Naval Engagement Between the Monitor and the Merrimac,” originally painted by James Hamilton. The engraving is by Samuel Sartain.

The greatest expansion of maritime trade, and perhaps the greatest output of steam and sailing ships, occurred between 1850 and 1920. Coincidentally, this period is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Ship Portraiture.”

The Civil War (1861-1865) was the first American war that used vessels driven by steam instead of sailing ships. Few noteworthy examples of Civil War naval art are known because steamships did not inspire artists as sailing ships had. James Hamilton (1819-1878) was one of the few artists inspired by steamships. He is known for his painting of the “Naval Engagement Between the Monitor and the Merrimac.”

“Off The Battery,” by James E. Butterworth, is a good example of his typical, small work. It not only shows Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan, but also the forest of sailing ship masts that dominated the skyline. This piece sold for $211,500. May 2000.

The end of the “age of sail” had a wide effect on maritime economy, as well as maritime artists. James E. Buttersworth (1817-1894) was a highly regarded maritime painter who switched from views of full-masted sailing ships to yachting subjects. He famously portrayed scenes of the America’s Cup competition, which began in 1851.

“Menemon Sanford”by James Bard, 1851.

Other painters chose to paint the growing number of steamships. Critics consider three painters to be the best in steamship maritime art. James Bard (1815-1897) was one of the first to paint early steamships. In the 1830s and 1840s, he worked with his twin brother, John Bard, who was also a maritime artist at the time. In 1849, James went out on his own and became noted for his steamship scenes in lower Manhattan and along the Hudson River.

The "Shelter Island," by Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921). Built in 1886, the "Shelter Island" ran from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, Southold and New York.

Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921) was born in Denmark and immigrated to New York in 1871. He painted primarily steamship scenes on the Hudson River and the New York harbor. It is estimated that 70 percent of his 4,000 paintings depict steamships. Some critics claim that his sea and sky backgrounds are monotonous and dull, but most consider his portrayal of the steamships themselves among the best.

The Swedish steam freighter Sune of Halmstad in heavy sea, by Reuben Chappell.

Reuben Chappell (1870-1940) was an English painter who specialized in both steamships and sailing vessels. His paintings of steamships are almost always shown in broadside with the vessel slightly tilting towards the viewer. This gives a glimpse of the detail on the deck.

A seascape with steam and sail-powered ship, signed “TW,” sold in June 2006 for $1,840.

Due to the relative scarcity of steamship paintings of the period, they have become highly collectible. Paintings and prints of steamships can be acquired more reasonably than comparable pictures of sailing ships. A collector who wishes to acquire contemporary nautical paintings should look into the American Society of Marine Artists’ annual exhibition, scheduled for 2011. There are also several specialty nautical magazines available that feature articles on maritime painters.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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