The Iconography of the Boat in 19th-Century American Painting

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  • The Iconography of the Boat in 19th-Century American PaintingAuthor(s): Gerald EagerSource: Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 224-230Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 11:09

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  • The Iconography of the Boat in 19th-Century American Painting


    John Wilmerding has shown how strong the tradition of marine painting is in American art, and he has made it clear that marine painting in America is largely a story of the 19th century.' From John Singleton Copley and Washington Alls- ton at the beginning of the century to Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder at the end, many American painters (such as Robert Salmon and Fitz Hugh Lane) specialized in marine subjects, and many more (like William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham) paid special, if occasional, atten- tion to the sea, the river, or the shore in their work. The specific type of locale depicted in American marine painting shifted during the 19th century-sometimes the open sea was shown, or the harbor or coastline, and sometimes an inland waterway, or the riverbank, or lake front. But what- ever area was depicted, one image is found in nearly all 19th- century American marine paintings-that is, the image of the boat.

    The importance in Romantic painting of two types of boat images-the boat that has been wrecked and the boat caught up in a storm-has been described by T. S. R. Boase and Lorenz Eitner.2 The drama of these subjects made them ide- ally suited to express the passionate beliefs about man and nature held by the Romantic artist. But though the wreck and the storm are ever-present dangers in water travel (and cer- tainly even more present in the 19th century when develop- ments in ship construction, navigation, and weather report- ing were hardly in proportion to the length of the voyages made) they are, nevertheless, the unexpected and unusual occurrences in a journey. The expectation was that the boat would be a safe, effective vehicle for transportation, work, or pleasure. The routine functioning of the boat, of course, does not contain the intense dramatic interest of the wrecked boat or the storm-tossed boat, but the Romantic artist had his moods of introspection and optimism as well as his moments of anguish and fatalism. The boat that is under control, accomplishing its intended purpose, was a useful image for expressing more reserved feelings about man and nature

    held by the Romantic artist, and the normally functioning boat also must be considered a significant element in the iconography of Romanticism.3

    In describing the Romantic fascination for the shipwreck and the storm at sea, T. S. R. Boase has noted an important difference between these dramatic subjects. That is, the wreck emphasizes the plight of the occupants, while the storm emphasizes the terribleness of the elements-the first is essentially a close-up version of the second.4 In treating the image of the boat that is under control, the Romantic artist also can choose either a close-up or a distant view, stressing either the peacefulness of the boat's occupants or the tran- quility of the natural elements. So the full extent of the Romantic artists' involvement with the image of the boat may be summarized as follows:


    CLOSE-UP VIEW ........... DISTANT VIEW (occupants) . (elements)


    The broad range of the image of the boat,makes it of special, and perhaps unique, value among the elements in the icon- ography of Romanticism, especially as it attracted a great many Romantic painters of diverse outlooks over a long period of time. The image of the boat provides an overview of 19th-century Romanticism, including a look at opposing strains within the Romantic movement.5 Moreover, individ- ual paintings which employ the image of the boat take on a more complete meaning when examined in the context of the full range of that imagery. This essay first will chart the main points in the iconography of the boat in 19th-century American painting, and then, viewed against that back- ground, will look for added meaning in the work of Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder.


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  • Fig. 1. John Singleton Copley, Scene of Shipwreck, c. 1790.

    In the 1790s, John Singleton Copley painted Scene of Ship- wreck (Fig. 1). This is one of three scenes of disaster at sea

    painted by Copley, and it exhibits many striking similarities to Gericault's Raft of Medusa.6 Similarities are to be found not only in the individual figures and general composition, but also in the mood and ideas evoked. This painting shows the boat out of control and focuses attention on the occupants. Several survivors are seen clinging to the wreckage of a boat. At the left, a man reaches for a hand which seems to be

    sinking into the sea, while above another figure looks help- lessly on and a third figure stares beseechingly toward the sky. Toward the center, an unconscious woman, apparently just pulled from the water, is held by a man. At the center, a black supports a woman who makes a frantic gesture toward a drowned man at the right. Above him, a man sits astride the

    broken mast, to which another man clings, signaling a rescue ship that approaches from the background, and casting a hopeful glance back to the others. The people are linked by the suffering they share, and in the aid they give one another. The strong help the weak and the low in station help the high. And the spiritual closeness of the figures is reinforced by the knotted compositional scheme that they combine to form.

    In 1804, Washington Allston painted Rising of a Thunder- storm at Sea (Fig. 2). Like Copley's painting, Allston's repre- sents a struggle, of the elements rather than the occupants. The sea and the sky, not the people, dominate the work. Near the center of the expanse a small single-masted boat is poised on the crest of a huge boiling wave, while in the left background a large three-masted ship rides out the storm. There is a sharp contrast between the relative safety of the distant ship and the plight of the smaller boat, a contrast that is sharpened by the greater turmoil of the sea around the small boat. While the course of the large boat is quite steady and secure, the fate of the small one is precariously bal- anced. The surging action of the wave has lifted the boat so that the rudder is almost completely out of the water. At the same time the wind has billowed the sails to near bursting. In the boat figures can be seen struggling with the lines, but the precise individual reactions of the occupants cannot be ob- served from the distance at which they are portrayed. Man's qualities are submerged by the threat, rather than emerging out of it, as in the work by Copley. The viewer is left with the impression of an awesome eschatological force that engulfs personal action.

    In The Raft (Fig. 3) painted in 1830, Thomas Doughty pre- sents a very different aspect of the boat. Here the sense of

    Fig. 2. Washington Allston, Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea, 1804.

    SPRING 1976 225

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  • Fig. 3. Thomas Doughty, The Raft, 1830.

    struggle is completely absent as the erupting force of nature has calmed and quieted. A sheltered river replaces the open sea, and the tempest is turned into a tranquil scene. From the

    right, the raft heads down the river, where as far as the eye can see nothing appears that would threaten its safety. The occupants have no difficulty keeping the raft on course-the smoothness of the water demands only the most matter-of- fact response from them. The raft is seen from a distance, and so the quiet magnificence of the surroundings domi- nates, enveloping the occupants in a cathedral-like atmos-

    phere. A similar serenity is found in William S. Mount's Eel Spear-

    ing on the Setauket (Fig. 4), painted in 1845. The spearing is done in an inlet, sheltered from the outbursts of the open sea. But in Mount's painting, the spirit of the elements is

    subordinate to that of the occupants of the boat. Like Copley, Mount focuses attention on the reactions of the individuals to the situation that involves them. But the reaction here is not an agonizing struggle for survival, for this is not a life- and-death experience. Like Doughty's figures in The Raft, Mount's have full control over the boat and so are able to exhibit a certain detachment from the elements themselves. Also, like Doughty's work, where the figures are lost in the vast tranquility of the scene, the figures in the Mount work are lost to the task at hand. The boy in the stern concentrates on keeping the boat steady, while the black woman in the bow, poised to spear, focuses all her attention on the job she is doing. Although both figures play an important part in the accomplishing of the task, each works alone. So unlike the Copley work, where the figures are closely linked by the experience they share, Mount's figures are separated by their experience. This separateness is seen not only in the differ- ent placement and position-one at the stern, the other in the bow, one seated, the other standing-but also in the different size, sex, age, and race of the figures. The absence of struggle in the task is further suggested by the presence of a puppy and a picnic basket in the boat, which add a carefree quality to the already tranquil atmosphere. The quiet of the scene seems to arouse an introspectiveness that inspires individuality, and the detachment that is seen in the figures is also felt in the background, in the slowly moving rowboat and moored sailboat, the figure drawing water from a well, people gathered around a barn and others standing in the fields. The world behind the boat, like the one in it, is a workaday world where the inhabitants, like the occupants, are immersed in routine, unhurried activities.

    George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Mis- souri (Fig. 5) shows the same aspect of boat imagery as Mount's Eel Spearing on the Setauket. The two figures in


    Fig. 4. William Sidney Mount, Eel Spearing on the Setauket, 1845.


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  • Bingham's boat seem engrossed in their own thoughts. The beaming young man lounging on the load is perhaps visualiz- ing the time when he reaches market, the brooding old man guiding the boat from the stern is perhaps already planning the next trapping trip. The journey, and their thoughts, are interrupted only by the attention they give to the viewer as the boat moves slowly and evenly by. The passiveness of the figures is echoed by the placidness of the surroundings. But even when the occupants of Bingham's boats are more ac- tive, as in his Jolly Flatboatmen (Fig. 6) the detached and introspective spirit remains. This work contains many figures, like Copley's, but here the taut, Early Renaissance composi- tion restricts the figures' movement rather than underlining the movement as the Baroque composition does in Copley's painting. Also, the overt action is limited to a single dancing figure-the others sit or recline, some playing instruments, most looking on. The figures do not touch one another but seem to operate in independent orbits. Two of the figures are seated on the oars, which are up out of the water. The boat is drifting free, able to direct itself in the calm waters where the greatest danger is simply stopping.

    By mid-century, then, American painters had utilized the full range of the iconography of the boat. They had depicted the wreck and the storm-the situations in which man has lost control over the destiny of the boat and struggles to regain it. Special emphasis was placed on the life and death experience of these situations by representing them when the final outcome of the struggle was still in doubt. In these scenes attention was either focused on the plight of the occupants, who are brought closer by the suffering, or on the power of the elements, which easily overcome man. Ameri- can painters also depicted situations in which man effort- lessly maintains control of the boat. The undemanding tran- quility of these subjects is underlined by representing their most routine and uneventful aspects. Here, too, the scenes can be seen close up, focusing attention on the peacefulness

    Fig. 5. George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845.

    of the occupants, kept separate by their introspectiveness, or can be viewed from a distance, calling attention to the seren- ity of the elements which readily envelop man. Early 19th- century American artists' interest in the boat may be summa- rized as follows:


    Copley Allston

    CLOSE-UP VIEW .............. DISTANT VIEW

    Bingham Mount Doughty


    Fig. 6. George Caleb Bingham, Jolly Flatboatmen, 1848.

    SPRING 1976 227

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  • Although the four aspects of the image of the boat differ in their particular point of view about man and nature, they are similar in that these points of view are all extremes. Nature is either stormy or serene; man is either a victim or a willing volunteer. Either nature engulfs man or man dominates na- ture; the boat is a symbol either of sacrifice and death or salvation and deliverance. In a sense, each aspect represents an uncomplicated point of view which excludes the others. So although t...


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