Depicting Drama on the High Seas
“Illuminating the Sea: The Marine Paintings of James E. Buttersworth, 1817-1894,” at the Bruce Museum, doesn’t quite smell like the sea I knew as a child — a mix of salty air and seasick siblings — but it does conjure up memories of sailing it.Paintings of ships and the sea were popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries, especially in maritime trading nations like the Netherlands, England and the United States, where wealthy ship owners, sailors and merchants liked to commission pictures of their vessels.
The mid-19th century is generally considered the Golden Age of Sail in the United States, and Buttersworth was among the most talented and prolific marine artists working here. He specialized in meticulously illustrated portraits of ships set against realistic views of the sea and sky, painted in a style that is at times reminiscent of the work of the artists of the Hudson River School.
The present show, organized by Mystic Seaport, assembles about 30 of the artist’s best works along with scale models of ships. For those who like boats, sailing and marine art, it presents a little piece of heaven.
Born in England, Buttersworth studied under his father, Thomas, a respected marine painter, before immigrating in the 1840s to the United States, where he found steady work chronicling the maritime world of New York and other port cities along the northeast coast.
His paintings depict a wide variety of vessels, from huge ocean-going steamships and clippers to packet ships, trading barks, naval frigates and even small harbor craft. But his most popular subjects by far were private yachts and the competitive world of American yacht club racing.
The show is displayed thematically, beginning with a small section devoted to the artist’s early British period. Lumpy water and odd perspectives suggest a young artist still finding his way as a painter, though he had an undeniable flair for vivid scenery as evidenced by “A Race Off the North Foreland, British Channel,” in which a pair of ships narrowly miss colliding. The painting is undated, like a lot of the works in this show.
The next section contains pictures of merchant vessels powered by both sail and steam. They are mostly conventional ship portraits, showing the subject from the side or from more than one perspective. The exception is a boldly imaginative reconstruction of a famous sea rescue in May 1854, “The Washington Rescuing the Passengers and Crew of the Winchester.”
There is even more drama in the next section, which depicts ships battling powerful seas and strong winds. “Ocean Scene, Henrietta Scudding” is especially evocative, depicting the fast-sailing schooner Henrietta battling some treacherous midocean sailing conditions during the first trans-Atlantic yacht race in December 1866. The Henrietta went on to win the race in 13 days and 21 hours.
Pictures of yachts and yachting make up the rest of the exhibition, beginning with a section devoted to America’s Cup racing. Once again the scenes are filled with drama, the artist depicting yachts frozen in competition, as in “Vigilant and Valkyrie II Beating to Windward,” one of several paintings here chronicling events from the 1893 America’s Cup series. The two yachts are shown side by side in stormy conditions, the crews battling it out for line honors.
Two other memorable pictures in this section depict the 1870 America’s Cup winner, Magic. In one of them, “Magic in New York Harbor,” we see the sleek, fast and beautiful 84-foot yacht flying across the water under full sail. This is a small but evocative painting that includes some marvelous background detail of Lower Manhattan and vessels berthed at the wharves along the Hudson River.
Buttersworth’s paintings were the still photography of their day — snapshots that memorialized important events. But they were more than documentary images. The attention paid in these paintings to realistic depictions of water, sky and light suggests an artist of unusual sensitivity to nature — and one whose work is worth viewing, even by landlubbers.
“Illuminating the Sea: The Marine Paintings of James E. Buttersworth, 1817-1894,” Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, through July 5. Information: (203) 869-0376 or brucemuseum
By BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO