Ship Portraits
late 18th to early 20th century

By: Louis J. Dianni

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2005

Production of ship portraits likely had its roots in early mapmaking. Many printed coastal maps from the 15th to 17th centuries were decorated with small pictures of vessels, correctly drawn, lining the waterways that navigators used as the trade routes. It would simply be a matter of time before one of these traders desired a pictorial representation of his individual ship. The Mediterranean was the most heavily trafficked of these trade routes. Marseille, France was one of the first of the large ports on this sea route and a notable resident was Joseph Roux (1725-1793). He is generally considered the originator of modern ship portraiture which is defined as a sizable, broadside image of a vessel painted on commission. Roux in advertising his enterprises included hydrography along with cartography, the manufacturing of navigational instruments and ship portraiture. In 1764 he published 12 charts and an atlas of Mediterranean harbors. Compilation of the atlas of numerous ports likely required the hiring of other hydrographers and draftsman from their respective home ports. This business contact presumably led to the proliferation of other individuals now using their drafting talents to produce ship portraits on a commission basis.

One such ship portraitist was Francesco Resmann, Italian (active late 18th to early 19th c.). He signed his works and also gave us the site of production as Trieste. Joseph Roux’s atlas included a hydrographers view of Trieste.

The first image (above) used to illustrate this article is by Francesco Resmann signed and dated Triestino, 1792. The Brigantine Betsey of Great Yarmouth (England), James Crow, Commander is seen leaving the harbor. Indication that its originator also had training in map-making is evident when viewing this watercolor on paper. A carefully drawn scale at the bottom, similar to scales at the bottom of maps, indicates the length of the vessel was approximately eighty feet. Approximately, because the stern is tipped toward the viewer at an impossible angle. This view allows us to see the fancy and somewhat costly, windowed gallery and stern decoration. Besides the scale, other map-like features are the cartouche which encloses the description of the scene. More subtle indications are the manner in which the buildings are shown receding from the coastline and the method of shading in the water as if a copper plate were going to be engraved for printing the work.

This seemingly simple rendering has a charming overall effect. Deck details include a top hatted crew, which includes the figure of a cabin boy and frolicking dog sporting what looks to be a poodle cut.

By the beginning of the 19thc. demand for the art had increased substantially. Instead of an aside to an existing business, the main focus could be the production of commissioned works. Along with the demand a higher degree of talent was desirable and readily supported. The quality and size were expanded and the medium could be elevated to the more time consuming and costly, oil on canvas. Owners and captains were generally able to afford the new luxury. Nearly every major port had at least one individual that rose to meet the demand.

Joseph Heard (1799- 1859) is the subject of the second illustration, (above). His oil on canvas depicts the brig Ituna approaching a port fringed with palm trees that is likely Port Adelaide in Australia. Captains were capable recorders of their surroundings and though Heard had probably never visited the port, a sketch of it could have been provided by the ship’s master, Abraham Sanderson. Heard had no trouble elaborating on a sketch provided by Sanderson to effect this eye appealing portrait with end of day lighting. The bow of the Ituna sits atop the crested wave of a translucent sea. A second stern view of the brig leads the viewer’s eye to the fortress and port beyond. The sizable work measures 28 by 40 inches and no doubt enlivened the room where it was initially displayed. Sanderson could now visually project his occupation to family, friends and business prospects.

Busy harbors with legions of vessels provided the ship portrait painter with the greatest possibility for commissions. Liverpool harbor was treed with masts. Emigrants coming to the United States provided an enduring procession of people escaping famine, economic distraught and religious persecution. At the height, nearly 4000 Irish immigrants alone, per day, booked passage on some ship bound for the United States. Many notable figures stand out for the quality of work they produced during this time and working from this harbor. Just a few that comprised what we term as the Liverpool School of ship portraitists were Samuel Walters (1811-1882), Joseph Heard and Duncan McFarlane (1818-1865). McFarlane’s work is the subject of the illustration number 3 (above). The American clipper ship Young Brander, circa 1853, in three views is shown entering Liverpool harbor. Three images provide a progression of views that allows us to examine the procedure. To the left the ship approaches under full sail. Reduced sail and a pilot going aboard is the central focus. Young Brander’s captain is seen proudly standing atop the fine deckhouse with his paperwork neatly tucked beneath his arm. The right hand side of the composition portrays a side wheel towboat harboring the clipper through the walled entrance. Numerous masts behind the breakwater wall fly the house flags of the some of the most important shipping companies of the mid 19th century. The Black Ball line flag is correctly shown flying a red swallow tail pennant with black ball centered within. This company grew to fame by instituting the conception of a packet ship. A packet employed the idea of a scheduled departure time.

Unbelievably, no one had thought to implement it previously. Prior to this, cargo and passengers waited until the ship was filled with enough commerce to provide a profit before departure. The Cunard line’s flag, which was the largest competitor of the Black Ball line is also depicted atop one of the main masts. The Red Cross line also ran a fleet of ships to capture its portion of the Liverpool trade and its distinctive broad white rectangular shaped flag, with St. George’s red cross, is aptly represented.

Insight to the business of ship portraiture would not be complete without the inclusion of an example of a work by Antonio Jacobsen (1850 -1921). Likely the most prolific of all, his brushes marked the firm transition of sail to steam. An emigrant from his native Denmark, he landed in New York at a most opportune time. The years after the Civil War saw an unprecedented expansion of commerce to the city. South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan was lined with sail as well as steam powered ships. Jacobsen found a willing audience for his works produced in oil on canvas, generally measuring 22 by 36 inches, for a delivered fee of only $5.00.

Other artists producing lesser quality portraits were charging more. No wonder he produced upwards of 7,000 works, about half of which have been documented in a dictionary titled Antonio Jacbosen, The Checklist. The book is available from the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia which also houses the largest collection of his works, numbering more than 250. Illustration #4 (below), the tugboat George K. Kirkham, is a colorful example of Jacobsen’s work.

A ship freshly arriving at New York harbor’s Sandy Hook was generally met with fierce competition from the many tugboat men vying for its trade. Shouting through megaphones, each offered to harbor the vessel for a price lower than their competitors. Most tugs were austere looking vessels with black painted hulls, easily touched up with more of the same, when the rigors of pushing and pulling marred the painted surface. If all were equal price wise, perhaps the smart looking boat with the appealing color scheme conveyed a sense of pride to the prospective client.

Additional decoration included giant flags at the stern. The pilot house was ornamented with three flags indicating the owner’s initials, and a gilded eagle with uplifted wings outfitted an otherwise plain cabin. Tiny puffs of steam emanating from its stack give the portrait an appealing, toy-like appearance.

Illustration #5 (below) is a portrait of the Gloucester fishing schooner Esperanto by Massachusetts artist C. Myron Clark (1876- 1925)

The lines of the early 20th c. fishing schooner in many ways resembled the lines of a pleasure yacht though their purposes were in direct opposition. Fishermen took great displeasure in the news that an America’s cup trial had been postponed because the winds were excessive. These fishermen were susceptible to all kinds of weather in the daily activities and rigors of their trade. In the fall of 1920 a group of Halifax, Nova Scotia businessmen decided to sponsor a series of races to determine the fastest fishing schooner afloat. Through a process of elimination races, it was determined the fastest of their fleet was the Delawana. Next a challenge was sent to the Gloucestermen of that famous Massachusetts fishing port.

Only days were given to choose a suitable competitor. Into Gloucester Harbor sailed the Esperanto considered by many to be the fastest of the fleet. Recent time at sea had taken its toll and the boat required a speedy overhaul. The hull was scraped and painted, its canvas patched and off it sailed for the right to compete in the First International Fishing Vessel Championship Race.

On the morning of October 30, 1920, as spectators lined Halifax Harbor, the Delawana and the Esperanto awaited the fire of the starting cannon. Esperanto easily won the first race as strong winds and a capable captain Marty Welch, favored her progress. The next race would not be so easy. Crowded by Delawana at Devil’s Island and nearly run aground on the outlying rocks, Esperanto narrowly escaped destruction as she sailed into fame as the first winner of the International Fishing Vessel Races.

Returning to Gloucester was not without its fanfare. Over one thousand paid $5.00 each for the privilege of attending the festivities. Well-wishers heard speeches by mayor Charles Brown and the then governor, Calvin Coolidge.

In this portrait the Esperanto is viewed flying the American flag which crowns its mainsail yet humbly displays the patches on its canvas.

The following year the Canadian government sponsored the building of a winning schooner called the Bluenose, which is commemorated on its national coinage. The Esperanto fell into virtual obscurity.

Nearly all of us can make some connection in our past to the sea. My hope is that some may be inspired to further research or even to make an acquisition. By choosing to decorate a room with a classic portrait, you just might be preserving a sliver of maritime history for future generations to enjoy.

As Antonio Jacobsen so aptly wrote some one hundred years ago... "No more than a painted ship on a painted ocean remains of that great merchant fleet that they created".

About the author:
Louis J. Dianni is a dealer in ship portraits and maritime paintings. He has been a regular exhibitor on the Florida show circuit for 15 years. He can be contacted:

by phone: 1 800 694 1421
or by mail: 1304 SW 160 Ave. #228A
                  Sunrise, FL. 33326

You may visit his marine art website at:

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