Nautical Art Sets Sail; This Classic Genre Is Anchored in Tradition but Has Begun Sailing in Uncharted Waters

Article excerpt

One of the more heroic figures of United States heritage, the mighty sailor remains both servant and symbol of the triumph of human spirit over the forces of nature. A country born of the sea, this nation was explored, settled and, in large part, sustained by her waters.

The tools of the sailor, the ship and the sea, also reflect the nation's heritage and identity. As such, nautical or marine art, be it a square-rigger or steamboat, a seascape or a shoreline, marine art has become one of the broadest and most widely collected genres of art today.

"Almost everybody's family got here by boat" said Chris Freeman, sales manager for Mystic Seaport, a 75-year-old Connecticut maritime museum which also publishes and distributes nautical fine art originals and prints. "It's a pretty universal story. Our mission is to tell the broader version through art; the westward expansion of Lewis & Clark, the California Gold Rush supported by immigrants sailing around Cape Horn. It's a very visual story that continues today."

Heritage of the Sea

Nautical art began in earnest as an art form at the dawn of this country as portraits--not of the sailors but of their vessels. Created by portrait artists who turned from people to profiles of ships, the paintings were commissioned by captains, owners and shipbuilders interested in documenting their vessels.

"Over time, the images evolved from ships in port to more elaborate ships at sea," said Freeman. "As artists began to better understand the elements, the wind and waves and direction the boat was sailing, they became more astute at capturing the essence of being at sea, and the paintings took on greater veracity."

Historically, nautical art has been about boats on the water. Early maritime painters focused on capturing a good likeness of the vessels but tended to miss the finer elements of the natural environment. In recent decades, however, the genre has evolved well beyond the ship to incorporate a wider range of contemporary artists, thus elevating the category to a more painterly, artistic expression that encompasses the setting and the sentiment. Nautical art is now collected as "Hard Over" is an acrylic on canvas by Chalk and Vermilion artist Kerry Hallam. much for the calibre of art and the artistic interpretation of the vessel.

The Evolution of a Genre

The tradition of nautical art is as old as the sea and, for many, as enduring. For artists and collectors, it is and always will be an archive of historic sailing vessels, legendary battle scenes and, for some, navigational charts.

The true historians, perhaps, will focus on an era, an event or a place in history, invest considerable research and capture that moment in exact measure in a realistic portrayal of ships at sea. Increasingly, however, others are creating an attractive or compelling nautical scene that may seem timeless or without anchor.

"Nautical art is a moving target, an evolving definition," said the Cutwater Group's Fred Polhemus of Vermont, who hails from Mystic Seaport. "In the last few decades, the definition has expanded well beyond traditional imagery. More artists have come into this market to test the waters. Artist John Stobart built the genre of historic port scenes. William Davis can do lilacs in a Nantucket basket on the porch of a beach house and call it nautical art. Certainly it's open to interpretation, but with all due respect to what it was, nautical art is now all things aquatic."

The Market

"One of the defining lines in a category of art such as aviation, automotive or marine art," said Eric Danneman, general manager for Greenwich, Conn.-based Chalk & Vermilion, "is if the emphasis is on the thing being pictured rather than on the artistic elements of the piece, where the thing is secondary."

Although the company represents Kerry Hallam, a British artist whose work could be considered marine art, Danneman would classify it as seascapes that happen to have sailboats in the composition. …