In yesterday’s article, I looked at ‘fine art’ paintings of ‘proper’ sailing ships from Claude Lorrain in the middle of the seventeenth century, to those of JC Dahl two centuries later. This article progresses into the period in which steamships became a threat to them, and finally saw sail slide into terminal decline.
Those from the nineteenth century are dominated by the prolific output of one of the greatest marine painters in European art: Ivan or Hovhannes Aivazovsky, born of an Armenian family living in the Crimea, in what was then part of the Russian Empire.
Like all the best marine artists, Aivazovsky painted many scenes of major naval engagements, and was fortunate enough to include some of the last major action between sailing warships in the Battle of Navarino. This was fought between the allied navies of the UK, with the Russian Empire and France, against the Ottoman Navy, during the Greek War of Independence, on 20 October 1827. Although little is seen of land, this took place on the west coast of the Peleponnese peninsula, in the Ionian Sea. Aivazovsky completed this work 19 years after the event.
This superb dawn View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus includes a forest of masts from the numerous ships alongside at the time.
Aivazovsky’s high reputation was earned in the face of competition from the likes of the British painter Clarkson Stanfield, whose Dutch Barge and Merchantmen Running out of Rotterdam from 1856 includes rich detail, even down to dilapidated buildings on the waterfront.
Less well-known today is Stanislas Lépine, one of the participants in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. He painted The Port of Caen as the centre panel of a triptych, in about 1859. That same year, when he was in Normandy, he met Camille Corot, who became his teacher.
The year 1869 was an eventful one for sailing ships, with the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, and the launching of the Cutty Sark, one of the last clippers to carry tea from China to its greatest consumers in Europe. At its fastest, that ship covered the 14,000 nautical miles around the Cape of Good Hope in as little as 107 days
Aivazovsky’s painting of ships passing through the Suez Canal in its first year of operation shows them in a quite unearthly light. These use combined propulsion, with both full sailing rig and steam power. Vessels which relied only on wind had to be towed through ignominiously behind a steam tug. Although this saved over three thousand miles from the total distance between China and London, it wasn’t really practical for sailing clippers, and another nail in sail’s coffin.
The late nineteenth century also saw painters take their easels progressively further, to the Middle East where they made Orientalist scenes, and to more hostile environments in the far north of North America.
Alberto Pasini’s At The Golden Horn from about 1876 shows a dockside not far from the bustling city of Istanbul. The Golden Horn (in Modern Turkish, Haliç) is a horn-shaped estuary which empties into the Bosphorus Strait at ‘Old Istanbul’. As a stretch of sheltered water so close to the city, it had long been a popular port for smaller traders, such as the mixed steam and sailing ship seen shrouded in coal smoke.
The sun and warmth of Turkey was no attraction to William Bradford, whose Looking out of Battle Harbor (1877) shows what had been a major fishing port on the Labrador coast. Established in the late eighteenth century, it flourished over the following century, then entered decline in the twentieth century, becoming just a summer fishing station. It is now a National Historic Site of Canada.
For many Europeans, the first sailing ship which they boarded was the one which took them away from the land of their birth to a new life in the Americas.
William McTaggart’s The Emigrants Leaving the Hebrides was started in 1883, when McTaggart painted the headland from which the emigrants left at Carradale, but he did not complete its details until 1889. This shows Scottish migrants loading their few possessions into rowing boats in the foreground, then being rowed out to the waiting ship in the distance.
When the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat campaigned around ports on the French Channel coast during the summer, he not infrequently caught sailing and steamships in harbour. This painting shows a Corner of a Basin, Honfleur in 1886, with its mixture of masts, rigging and funnels.
Eugène Jansson’s Evening in Kornhamnstorg, Stockholm (1897) shows the well-lit waterfront of Stockholm’s old town as a strip across its dominant blue. The square of his title is in the old town, where grain arrived for sale and storage in the past. The artist fills the sky and water with soft and apparently random curves and squiggles, and has scratched linear patterns into the hull of the sailing ship.
Several of the Post-Impressionists who moved to the south of France at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sailed themselves. It was perhaps Paul Signac who painted some of the most evocative and colourful views of the last days of sail in the ports of the Midi: in his Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles from 1905-06 (above), and his more impromptu watercolour of a Corsican Landscape (Ajaccio) from 1931 (below).
The last image prophesying the fate of sail has to be JMW Turner’s Fighting Temeraire from as early as 1839, in which he shows a smoky new paddle-propelled steam tug towing a great sailing warship to be broken up. By the start of the Second World War, almost every sailing ship around the world had undergone the same fate. So ended the days of sail.