“Consider the subtleness of the sea…” – Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”
Ship portraits, a genre of painting that commonly depicts a single vessel on the sea, fall under the larger umbrella of marine art, popularized in the 17th century by Dutch painters celebrating their country’s naval dominance in both battles and trading. Perhaps the most famous Dutch maritime painting is Rembrandt’s 1633 oil “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” which was famously stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, and is still unrecovered. It was Rembrandt’s sole seascape.
Much like portraits of kings and noblemen, and their wives or children, ship portraits were painted by commission, requested by the ship’s captain or owner, and were given, by the painters, all the same thoughtful, appreciative reverence. Capturing the exact likeness of the vessel was key to conveying the specific grandeur of the ship, though ship portraitists were also acutely focused on the surrounding details of the sea and sky.
A Change of Perspective
The earliest ship portraits—crude rock carvings depicting reed boats in what is today Azerbaijan—date back to 12,000 B.C. They evolved into their own distinct art form in the centuries that followed, but it was in Britain during the Romantic Era where the genre truly took the seas, so to speak. British Marine Art during this time had been heavily influenced by the Dutch Golden Age of painting, when Dutch painters quite literally changed the perspective from which seascapes were painted, by lowering the horizon.
Like the Dutch, Britain had a long and storied naval history; that Britain is an island made the study of the seas that much easier. With the focus shifted, British artists were able to build upon the Dutch tradition, and adopt a style wholly their own.
British painter Montague Dawson served in the Royal Navy during World War I, and again in World War II as a war artist. Dawson’s experience on the sea is visible in his finely rendered ship portraits. Ship portraits as a genre have long since expanded their audience of admirers beyond captain’s and ship owners, and can command high prices at auction today. Due to its rich naval tradition, British artists tend to predominate in the marine section of our European art sales, with Montague Dawson considered by many to be the leading maritime artist of the twentieth century and a particular favorite among collectors. Paintings by Dawson are a frequent feauture of Freeman's auctions of European Art and Old Masters, with top results seen for works such as "White Squall - Clipper Ship Ann McKim" and "The Guardian."
Curious what your ship portrait or other European art is worth? Freeman’s is inviting consignments through mid April for the upcoming European Art & Old Masters Sale. For your private, complimentary appointment, please contact:
David Weiss | 267.414.1214 | email@example.com
Images: Montague Dawson (British 1890-1973) "The Guardian," sold for $52,000; "White Squall - Clipper Ship Ann McKim," sold for $68,500