American Nautical Paintings

12/09/2016     General

A man enamored by the sea, Nelson Doubleday, Jr. sailed the world in his yacht, the Mandalay. At home, he surrounded himself with splendid examples of marine painting by masters of the genre, including Robert Salmon, James Buttersworth and Montague Dawson. Each of these drew inspiration from a rich heritage of marine painting, which flourished during the eighteenth century when Britain secured absolute mastery of the seas through superior seamanship and firepower.

Robert Salmon, born in England in 1775, developed a distinctive style informed by this tradition, as well as the classical techniques of Dutch marine painters. Exhibiting his first paintings publicly in 1802, he became renowned for his facility in precisely rendering sailing ships. His own deep love of the sea inspired a peripatetic life, during which he traveled about, recording ships, coasts and bustling harbors, first in England, and then, in 1828, in America, where he remained for eleven or twelve years. He settled in Boston, where he again achieved success and became one of its great maritime artists, influencing America’s own seminal school of marine painters, including Fitz Hugh Lane, Albert van Beest, William Bradford, Alfred T. Bricher, and William Trost Richards. A pair of oils by Salmon is a highlight of the marine paintings in the Nelson Doubleday, Jr. Collection (Lot 16). Painted in 1822, before Salmon immigrated to America, they depict the pursuit and capture of the American schooner John & William by the British cutter Castle Edwin off the coast of Ireland. The dramatic encounter is infused with motion as the boats fly in a stiff breeze, the waves churn and the clouds swirl above. On the reverse the engagement is described in detail in a modern hand.

Born in 1827 to the marine painter Thomas Buttersworth (a generation later than Salmon), James Buttersworth studied painting in London with his father. Schooled in the British tradition of marine painting, he, too, emigrated to New York in 1845 (interestingly, just after Robert Salmon appears to have returned to England). Like Salmon, Buttersworth had a profound impact on marine painting in America, dominating the genre for sixty years. Painting all manner of vessels, including clipper ships and yachts, he lived long enough to depict the early steamship era. His forte was in portraying the majesty, grace and motion of sailing vessels, rendered in meticulous detail. The purchase of some of his earlier works by Currier and Ives, as well as participation in exhibitions of the American Art-Union, brought him public recognition.

Among the highlights of the Nelson Doubleday, Jr. Collection are five extremely fine works by Buttersworth, one of which, Yacht Racing Off Sandy Hook, captures the drama of the June 14, 1877 annual regatta of the New York Yacht Club off Sandy Hook, New Jersey (Lot 17). Here, competing yachts unfurl their sails in a stiff breeze. At right center, identified by its blue and white private signal is the Active, the distinctive yacht of Frank W. J. Hurst, treasurer of the New York Yacht Club. The ship has already rounded the lightship permanently stationed at Sandy Hook (identifiable by a round lighting apparatus erected on a mast, one of two on each such vessel) just visible behind another craft in fast pursuit. Depicting the sole victory of the Active, this dramatic and splendid scene was likely commissioned by its skipper, a common practice among well-heeled sailors. To the extreme right in the distance are puffers, or spectator boats, on which fellow members could take passage to watch the dramatic race.

The sky is masterfully rendered in hues of plum, gray and blue, a splendid background for wind-filled sails. The dramatic regatta was notable for a black squall that quickly arose toward the end of the race. Vividly described in contemporary accounts, it nearly sank two larger yachts, the Wanderer and the Rambler.

New York Harbor with Castle Clinton, a Pilot Ship and a Frigate is another vibrant gem (Lot 18). At right in the bustling scene, Buttersworth depicts Castle Clinton, built to protect New York Harbor from the British during the War of 1812. To the left is a triple-decker vessel that appears in quite a number of paintings by Buttersworth, and that seems to have been a product of his imagination. The harbor is awash with sailing ships of all sizes, but at center we see the dispatch boat of The New York Herald on its mission of intercepting ships arriving from Europe, to retrieve the news they carried. James Gordon Bennett, flamboyant publisher of the Herald, had initiated this practice in the 1830s, with the intention of being the first to publish news from abroad and beating his competitors (who waited until the ships had docked) to the punch. With increasing cooperation among newspapermen in the 1840s, and the advent of the telegraph in 1848, such schemes were no longer necessary. Castle Clinton itself was converted into a restaurant and theatre in 1824. In 1855 it began to serve a new function, as the official immigrant processing center in the nation, a role in which it continued until 1890.


The Nelson Doubleday, Jr. Collection will be auctioned on January 11, 2017.