“Escape of the HMS Belvidera From the U.S. Frigate President,” circa 1815, by Thomas Buttersworth
“New York Harbor,” 1880, by Francis Augustus Silva
“View of a Seaport,” circa 1760, attributed to John Cleveley the Elder
“Portrait of Preserved Fish,” circa 1830, unidentified artist
If you like looking at boats, you’ll love “The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America.”
“It’s a lot of boats, but it’s a lot more than that,” Portland Museum of Art European curator Andrew Eschelbacher said. “By focusing on the boats, we can learn a lot about American identity in the second half of the 18th century and the early 19th century. The core of our American identity gets played out on the coast during that time.”
In that context, “The Coast & the Sea” is really an exhibition about the birth and growth of a nation. Visitors will see fiery naval battles from the War of 1812, when the USS Constitution proved its mettle; early views of New York Harbor, with the arrival of immigrants and industry; and dramatic scenes of ships and shipwrecks, which reinforced the notion that the mighty Atlantic served not only as a dangerous divide between the new and old worlds, but also an important resource for commerce, culture and adventure.
Businessmen looked across the sea to Europe and beyond for partners in trade. Others made their living fishing and whaling. Cities and towns emerged to accommodate foreign goods and process fish. The aesthetic enjoyment of pleasure boating and seaside leisure activities fueled coastal development and birthed a culture of recreation.
There are no pictures from Maine, but that’s only because “The Coast & the Sea” was culled from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, Eschelbacher said. The themes that unfold in these paintings represent issues that Portland, Bath, Belfast and communities up and down the Maine coast were dealing with at the same time: growth in fishing, shipbuilding and tourism, driven by commerce, war and wealth.
“So much of this could be Maine,” Eschelbacher said. “It’s the ideas that we want people to think about.”
The eye-grabber is a 6-foot view of New York in the mid-1700s, by an unidentified artist. Painted in the Anglo-Dutch tradition with a sweeping, topographical view, “A Southeast Prospect of the City of New York” shows a fleet of a dozen British ships in the East River with Trinity Church rising in the background. The painting presages what Wall and Water streets would become: the symbol of capitalism and commerce in the New World.
Eschelbacher hangs the painting on a half-wall on the right side of the entrance to the first-floor gallery. The wall is painted a rich, dark blue, drawing attention and orienting visitors to start their visit here. “A Southeast Prospect of the City of New York” is the perfect painting to begin to tell this story. We see a bustling city, full of energy and activity on land and sea, before a hint of Colonial unrest.
It’s the only painting on this particular wall, allowing visitors space to look for landmarks and observe activity on the wharves and in the streets.
And from this vantage point in the middle of the gallery, the show unfolds with more paintings and a handful of artifacts: scrimshaw, a snuff box and a spyglass. Eschelbacher has arranged “The Coast & the Sea” in four sections: seaside leisure, ports of call, battleships and adventure and enterprise. But the paintings all overlap.
The star of the show is painter Thomas Birch, an English-born American who emerged in the early 1800s as America’s best painter of ships. He was adept at ship portraits, as well as romantic scenes of alluring harbors. There are six Birch paintings in this show, including the dramatic “Ship in a Storm” that reminds us of the dangers of the sea. The subject of Birch’s painting may already be aground, but the distressed boat at the very least is struggling in a heavy gale.
Two Thomas Buttersworth battle paintings remind us of the brutality of naval warfare: ships side by side, blasting cannonballs into each other’s sides until one goes down or is captured. Billowing smoke and the imagined cries of maimed men tell this part of the story.
The paintings span three wars: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. If nothing else, the preponderance of paintings from the War of 1812 makes the case that America celebrated that war in the day, even if it’s sometimes overlooked by history seekers today (its bicentennial celebration three years ago notwithstanding).
There is romance on these walls, heroic stories and tales of adventure, peril and the reward of risks taken.
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through April 26
HOW MUCH: $12 adults, $10 seniors and students with ID, $6 ages 13 to 17, free 12 and younger
INFO: 207-775-6128, portlandmuseum.org
HANDS-ON: At 11 a.m. Feb. 7, Nantucket scrimshaw carver David Lazarus discusses the history of carving and modern ecological concerns, followed by a Pop Up Studio from 1 to 3 p.m. with demonstrations and hands-on activities.
WAR LECTURE: James Nelson, education coordinator at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, talks about the War of 1812 and its impact in Maine, including fortunes built in shipbuilding, blockade running, privateering and smuggling; 11 a.m. Feb. 21.