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Monday, February 23, 2015

Painting Ships

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838, J.M. W. Turner.                     
My wife, our son, and I took our first ocean voyage (a short hop from Miami to the Bahamas) in 1988 on one of the first NCL cruise ships, the Sunward II (which is still in service under a different name, by the way). It was only four or five days but it was enough to ruin every other vacation we ever took again on dry land. The ship was only six or seven hundred feet long and had a huge rising sun emblazoned on the side. Since then, I've all but lost track of how many cruises we've been on (ten, I think); and the ships have gotten progressively larger, more ornate, more comfortable, and, surprisingly, less expensive (per person, per day). Last spring we spent a night on one of the most historic ships in history, the HMS Queen Mary. It didn't go anywhere; it's permanently moored in Long Beach, California, but for a lover of the sea, it was quite an exciting experience. In just a few weeks we will be boarding the largest cruise ship in the world, the Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas for a twelve-day transatlantic jaunt from Ft. Lauderdale to Barcelona. I hope to sometime along the way collect a print of a painting of the ship to add to my collection.
The Allure of the Seas, 2011, Frank Camarda
Artists have been depicting ships almost since ancient man discovered that wood floats, and that, crafting it in the right size and shape, it can carry considerable God explained to Noah. Although Noah's vessel has been glamorized in paint more than a few times, it probably looked little like anything we'd recognize as a ship today--more like a crude barge. No one is quite sure when Noah "set sail" but petroglyphs depicting sailing vessels date from about 12,000 BCE. The Greeks painted ships from Odysseus on their pottery as far back as 480-70 BCE. In fact, ships and art have been closely tied ever since that time (as evidenced by Park West Gallery's art auctions on cruise ships today). All one has to do is study the thousands of images artists have set to canvas over the centuries to very accurately trace the development of both the art and science of ships from wind powered to nuclear.
Christ on the Sea of Galilee, 1854, Eugène Delacroix
Christ in the Storm on the Lake of
Galilee, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
Quite apart from Noah, artists painting biblical scenes have long been fascinated by the gospel accounts of the sudden storms and fishing boats laden with Christ and the apostles (it stretches the definition considerably to call them ships). Both Rembrandt (right) and the French artist, Eugene Delacroix (above) depicted this scene. It's interesting to compare them, especially in that they came more than two-hundred years apart. Besides the Bible, artist have also turned to history for their inspiration as they chronicled the gradual conversion from wind to steam such as in what may be the most famous "ship painting" of all time, J.M.W. Turner's The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up (top) dating from 1838. Others have looked within their own imaginations in their depictions of man's affinity for the seas, as seen in the work of Russian artist (now living in Hawaii), Vladimir Kush and his Surrealist Butterfly Ship (below).
Butterfly Ship, Vladimir Kush
Some of the best marine art came from the Netherlands during the Dutch "Golden Age" when that nation had more ships afloat than the rest of Europe combined. Fully ten percent of their male population were sailors. Judging from the number of marine paintings produced during that period, another ten percent must have been artists. The Seven Provinces (below), by Cornelis de Vries, boasting up to eighty cannons, saw action in four major battles over a period of more than thirty years.
The Seven Provinces, Cornelis de Vries
A broadside extolling the speed
of the most advanced
sailing ships ever built.
Speed and economy of scale have always given ships an advantage in hauling cargo from place to place. Sometimes they've been the only means. As the 19th century wore on, paintings of ships saw them grow larger and faster, switching from sails to steam and from wood to steel. Shortly before the Civil War, the clipper ships came of age, moving cargo and passengers from east to west, up to three times faster and cheaper than freight wagons could transverse the vast American continent. Fitz Hugh Lane's 1853 Salem Harbor (below) appears tranquil, even lazy looking, as compared to the boastful broadside advertisement for the famed clipper ship, Hornet (left), promising to make the trip from New York to San Francisco in a breakneck 105 days, even though having to sail around the treacherous tip of South America. A similar trek cross-country before the railroads might take up to a year (with good weather and good luck).

Salem Harbor, 1853, Fitz Hugh Lane
Ships, have, of course, long been weapons of war. Some of the most dramatic paintings of ships ever produced have depicted their desperate sea battles, from Europe's seemingly unending spitball fights during the 17th and 18th-centuries to one of the more serious cannon parties as painted by Edouard Manet in his 1864 The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (below, left), depicting one of the most important sea battles of the American Civil War.

Battle of the Kearsarge and the
Alabama, 1864, Edouard Manet
During the 20th-century, steel had already replaced wood. Steam, diesel, and nuclear power have long ago replaced sails, and even the big guns of ships like the German Bismarck (below) have given way to guided missiles and aircraft carriers. In addition to a nearly constant growth in size, ships have adapted their architecture to the job at hand, not only militarily, but as to their commercial purpose as well, from ice-breaking cargo ships to massive tankers and even more gargantuan container ships, now the largest (and ugliest) vessels afloat. Artists seldom paint them. At no time was this development more rapid than in the pre-jetliner era of the first half of the 20th-century when countries raced recklessly against time to proclaim the fastest transatlantic crossings.

The German Battleship, Bismarck
This schoolboy mentality came to a sudden, tragic end on April 15, 1912, when the "unsinkable" Titanic, the largest, fastest ship of its time...sank. Reckless was no longer "wreckless." Ships grew up. They became safer. Designers became wiser. Standards became stricter. Steamship companies became more realistic. Yet, both the companies and their ships continued to grow larger. The Queen Mary set sail on her maiden voyage on May 27, 1936, the biggest, most luxurious ship ever built...also the safest, in that it's now almost eighty years old.

Sea Trials of RMS Titanic, April 2, 1912, Karl Beutel
Although my wife and I have sailed on nearly a dozen different ships (two of which are no longer in existence) during the past twenty-five years, I've painted only one. She was christened the S.S. France in May of 1960, the longest ship ever built at the time. Time, however was her downfall. She was too much too late, arriving at a time when Boeing 707s were cutting transatlantic travel from a week or more to eight hours or (a little) more. Yet, she saw service for thirteen years before being mothballed for the next six years. Then, in May of 1980, the S.S. France was rechristened the S.S. Norway. Our second cruise came some fourteen years later, as we celebrated New Year's Eve, 1994-95, aboard the lavishly refurbished vessel; what was then the most magnificent ship afloat. I fell in love with her and painted her (below) as a segment of a larger painting recalling our cruise. Sadly, following an engine room explosion in May, 2003, which killed eight crew members, the ship was taken out of service. She was sent to India for scrapping in 2008. A few years ago, I put together a video tribute to the ship which can be seen at the bottom.

Copyright, Jim Lane
S.S. Norway, 1995, Jim Lane
The Titanic (1912) as compared to the Allure of the Seas (2012).


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