Connected \\ July 6, 2021
A word with Curator Dan Finamore on summer exhibition In American Waters
PEM’s summer exhibition, In American Waters, redefines the role the sea plays in American painting. On view through October 3, this exhibition includes some of the great classic scenes of 19th century marine art, such as merchant vessels, yachts and naval vessels, but it reaches well beyond that into parts of American painting that people often don’t associate with seascapes or marine art.
I met up recently with Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History and the exhibition’s co-curator, to find out more. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: How is this show different from other maritime art exhibitions?
A: We have taken a much more broad-based viewpoint of how the sea has impacted American culture and how it has been reflected in American painting. Throughout the show, we see images of the sea, and people on the sea. Ships appear throughout the exhibition, but they do so in very different contexts. In some cases, when you walk into a space, you look at what appears perhaps to be a ship portrait, but they also convey very wide-ranging types of activities and kinds of perspectives. They're telling very evocative human stories. Things like migration from Europe and from Asia in steerage class, things like Middle Passage slavery.
Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002). The Immigrants, 1923. Oil on canvas. Thomas and Karen Buckley. Image courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum.
When we really sat down and started to look at the breadth of American painting, we found the impact of the sea in American life to be pervasive. There's a painting by Norman Lewis that I think is one that really stood out in my mind. It is of a roiling sea, a wave about to crash right before our eyes. The foreground is dark, the sky is red. Norman Lewis is a painter who's well known for his work, as a Harlem artist of the Black struggles in urban life. Yet as an early artist, as a young man, he was in the merchant marine. The sea clearly touched his life in a very significant way. Then, later on, he used it as a symbol, as an allegory for some of the same subject matter that he was painting, which was more directly about the struggles he was referring to. The symbolism of the sea can be very wide-ranging in unexpected ways.
Q: How did the idea for In American Waters come about?
A: The show has been bubbling in the background for quite a few years. I've always bumped into fantastic works that I think tell under-told stories and didn't fit into so many other projects. I've kept track of a lot of those paintings and thought about how to utilize them in new and unconventional ways. Then, quite a few years ago, we started to talk about how we could think about the sea more broadly. When Austen Bailly (PEM’s former Curator of American Art) joined the staff, we sat down and started to plot out a revisionist identity for the sea in this respect. Between the art historian and the maritime historian mindsets, we were able to craft a new approach. We started to expand our checklist in many, many different ways. There are 38 lenders in the exhibition, overall. The core of the show is the Peabody Essex Museum collection and also the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s collection.
A visitor gets a shot of the Norman Rockwell painting in the exhibition.
Q: How are contemporary artists like Kay WalkingStick expanding our understanding of maritime art?
The artist Kay WalkingStick with PEM’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, Karen Kramer, during the opening of In American Waters.
A: Kay WalkingStick has presented us with a very contemporary view of a modern coastline. There's a stone breakwater, which tells us immediately this is not a reflection on ancient history or anything to that extent. It's just an artist who is standing on the shore looking out to sea. Yet she has also infused the painting with the understanding that people have been living on the land and standing there, looking out to sea for a very, very long time, before there was a nation called America, during the entire time of American history, today, and long into the future. She's created this timeless image that grounds us both in today and also across time in a very broad-based way.
Q: Can you describe the multisensory experience of this exhibition?
A: A good portion of the show is organized from the perspective of the viewer, from the artist, and then, again, from those of us who walk into the gallery, standing on the shore, looking out to sea, standing on the deck of a boat that is in nearshore waters, participating in a deep-water overseas voyage, walking through an urban port city. In that sense, it's a very emotional, very visceral kind of first-hand experience. What we really want to do is evoke people's imaginative perspective on their own personal experiences, if they have deep knowledge and experience of the sea, or to craft that for people who have not been to sea and to relate firsthand what artists have experienced and how they've translated it for people.
A visitor in the exhibition during the opening weekend.
Q: What is the composition of a typical ship portrait and how does it convey maritime culture?
A: Ship portraiture is interesting simply because it's called portraiture. We reserve that word in art for a very few subjects. If I were to paint a picture of a house, for instance, it would be a painting of a house. If I painted a pile of fruit, it would be a still life. If I paint a ship, which is a human construction, it becomes a portrait as if this is an animate object. Once they are launched, they are on the sea and so they are thought of as more living entities than any other human constructions. With regard to a ship portrait, the artist will also focus on specific attributes of the ship that convey similar kinds of information, usually augmenting the positive attributes, of course, with a ship that's newly launched. Also focusing in on those things that other people will really look at and notice. The flags that may convey the name of the vessel or the ownership of the vessel. The figurehead, which is that symbolic element that conveys the emotional character that they want to imbue the ship with. It is an overall picture, but it's also one that highlights desirable attributes.
Opening weekend of In American Waters.
Q: How did ship painting become popular here in Salem?
A: Ship painting in America arose very closely after the American Revolution when the earliest independent commercial vessels out of Salem and other North American ports went primarily to Europe, but also to China and a few other locations, where there were specialist artists willing to take commissions. Unlike European countries where ships were owned by the nation or by large East India companies and so on, independent merchants who owned ships took great pride in their vessels, and so they wanted portraits of them painted. Very early on, by the 1790s, the European artists were taking note that there was this great demand among Americans for these kinds of paintings. One in particular, Michele Felice Cornè, left Naples to come to America and settle in Salem and become what is essentially America's first local marine painter. He ended up training several artists himself, some of whom went on to become specialists in marine subject matter here in Salem, native-born painters. That generated a very strong interest in marine art and in portraiture, specifically of a scale that could be hung in local homes. Not the grandiose works that hung in public halls, but those that you would see in your own house maybe above the mantelpiece. Starting in about 1800, that became a very common sight in American houses.
Michele Felice Cornè (1752-1845). Ship America on the Grand Banks, about 1800. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield, 1953. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum
Q: John Bertonccini, Whaling Vessels in the Ice, could you describe what's going on in the painting and the feeling of looking at it?
A: John Bertoncini was a ship captain who was engaged in the whaling trade. He was not trained as an artist, but absolutely loved to record the scenes wherever he went. If he didn't have paints with him or if he ran out of paint on a long voyage, he would use the paint that they stored to paint the ship. He went on some very long, arduous voyages way up into the North. They would have to freeze the ships into the ice in the winter in order to be there early enough in the season, because the voyage was so long, for when the ice broke up and the whales appeared. They would winter over and spend months and months on board their ships, frozen in the ice with very little to do in 50-degree below weather. He crafted a painting that essentially viewed the landscape like a sea chart. He applied a certain navigator's lens to the very restricted zone around Herschel Island, where they spent so many months in the wintertime, of the different activities. In the foreground, he has both a soccer match and a baseball game underway. A painted depiction of a baseball game from the 1890s itself is pretty rare, but to show one in the high Arctic with the sailors playing in fur uniforms is amazing.
John Bertonccini (1872 – 1947). Whaling vessels in the Ice, Herschel Island, about 1894-95. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Maritime Art and History Visiting Committee, 2019 2019.33.1
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?
A: That the ocean environment is a very fragile one. It is one of great significance to our present and to our future from a political standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from so many different perspectives, that the sea is of as much significance today as it has been in human history.
Q: What's your best memory or experience of being in American waters?
A: My perspective on the marine environment is summed up probably best with regard to that the exhilaration of breaking away from everyday life and separating one's self from the routines and from the expectations, and living an entirely different kind of experience, which is one of self-reliance, in a way, and mutual reliance on your shipmates. Also one in which certain assumptions are just cast to the wind and you need to think moment to moment and live in that moment, whether it's something that absolutely has to be done on the boat immediately, or whether it's planning for what you know is happening in the next few hours. I have undertaken some limited ocean sailing races to Halifax or out to Sable Island off the Canadian coast where there is a single overarching moment. It can be exhilarating such as a following wind that makes the boat speed, just what you would want it to be. You set the spinnaker and everything is beautiful and everybody's calm. Or where everybody is constantly vigilant and focused on adjusting the sails and steering the boat in a very narrow course. All of those things make you feel aware and alive.
William Trost Richards. Along the Shore, 1903. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2009.1. Photography by Steven Watson
In American Waters is on view until October 3 before it moves to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, PEM’s partner in the exhibition.
TOP IMAGE: James Edward Buttersworth (1817 - 1894). Yacht Racing off Sandy Hook, about 1877. Oil on canvas. Collection of Alan Granby and Janice Hyland.