Setting Full Sail Toward the 20th Century

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Thomas Chambers’s “Packet Ship Passing Castle Williams, New York Harbor”

The American Museum of Folk Art in New York has a new exhibit –  Thomas Chambers (1808-1869): American Marine and Landscape Painter.  His paintings have been described as having an “entrancing, slightly demonic style … neither strictly realist nor naïve, they packed a formal, even decorative punch.”

For years, his paintings were collected by private owners and museums, yet because all were unsigned the painter remained a mystery. Only in the late 1930s was first signed painting located – “The Capture of H.B.M. ‘Macedonian’ by the U.S. Frigate ‘United States,’ October 25, 1812, signed by T. Chambers.

From the New York Times:  Setting Full Sail Toward the 20th Century

Chambers was born in Whitby, England, into a poor seafaring family, where artistic talent literally saved or at least prolonged lives. His older brother George, sent to sea at age 10, revealed such a knack for painting and decorating the ship’s gear that, at 18, he was released from his indentures and sent to art school. Four years later he was in London, where he became a successful marine painter. Even William IV, the Sailor King, commissioned a work. But George died in 1840; his early years at sea had ruined his health.

Thomas followed George to London, picking up artistic skills from him and probably first working, as George had, as a painter of theater scenery and panoramas. Ms. Foster surmises that Chambers was an impatient, restless sort who decided to try his luck across the Atlantic. On March 1, 1832, he was in New Orleans — at the courthouse, to be precise — filing a declaration of intention to become an American citizen. After that, census reports, directories and newspaper advertisements show him moving every few years: New York City, Baltimore, Boston, Albany and back to New York City. He listed himself variously as a landscape painter, marine painter and occasionally as a “fancy” painter, which indicated skills at ornamental painting that may have included the decoration of furniture, mirrors and tinware.

His images are like chorus lines singing and dancing their hearts out, ever so slightly off-key and out of step. Every part contributes vocally and vigorously to the whole. The trilling patterns of ocean waves, rounded trees or riverside hedgerows; the sharp-edged mountains and shorelines, overemphatic clouds, glossy rivers and almost lurid sunsets — they all lock arms, and do a little more than their bit. The slight awkwardness amplifies. You see them perform and you see their performance, gaining a greater understanding of the visual appetite by having it thoroughly satisfied.

American Seascapes – a slideshow of the paintings of Thomas Chambers

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One Response to Setting Full Sail Toward the 20th Century

  1. steve Jones says:

    Came on here by accident and found a time machine going back to interesting times, very interesting…..Steve