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Julie Steiner 01-11-2021 06:33 PM

Birch, An American Ship in Distress, 1841
I thought others might enjoy pondering the this week's "work of the week" at San Diego's Timken Museum of Art.


A truism of art history has it that any painted ship is also always a representation of the “ship of state.”

Jim Moonan 01-13-2021 07:09 AM

This is wonderful, Julie — Such an ambitious depiction of distress! Definitely worth the ponder!

Everything about it depicts the brink of disaster — literally and, in context with the period of time, metaphorically . The only hopeful sign are the patches of blue sky signaling the storm has passed. But it will be hours before the sea calms... The feeble matchstick lighthouse in the background... The stony shore menacing... The unravelling and untethering of the sails is surrender...

"Ship of state" indeed! I hadn't heard of the artist before. I checked out the historical background of the painting and time period. When placed in context of the events of our nation at the time It only adds to the richness of the scene depicted. We were young...

I wonder if this was a slave ship? Those that have boarded the lifeboats look white. But if you look closely at the ship deck there are dark images that languish in the back. But down below deck....

Thanks for this. I bookmarked the website for future pondering : )

Julie Steiner 01-14-2021 10:05 AM

Glad you enjoyed, Jim!

It's an interesting collection, and I used to visit it often with my kids when they were small, since admission was free. The girls would make up stories about the pictures. Imagine our astonishment five years ago when one of my aunts got the genealogy bug, and informed us that we are direct descendants of the subject of one of our favorite paintings there (Margaret Kemble Gage). I haven't evaluated how reliable Aunt Mary's research was, but I like the notion.

Sarah-Jane Crowson 01-16-2021 12:27 PM

Oh, that is interesting to look at - thank-you.

I wonder how far the meanings in the picture are also a comment on ‘progress’ and new technologies? I can see four other ships beside the large saying vessel; a steamship, a tiny sailboat, the rowboat reaching out to the ship in distress and the lifeboat about to launch.

They’re all dwarfed by the large ship in distress (I don’t know enough about boats to guess whether the artist is playing with scale, but the steamship looks small so they might be). In my reading, the smaller sailboat lists less and the rowboat seems stable.

So, I wonder if there’s a valid reading of this about size, scale and the human - power and grandeur - the idea of ‘war’ itself being commented on as a negative (rather than heroic) activity. And about ‘progress’ (the steamship/technologies bearing in on the older technologies of large sailing ships).

I’m not an art historian, but I do enjoy speculation (and I’m missing art galleries during lockdown here in the UK so this diversion much appreciated).

Jim - your thoughts were really interesting - I love your description of the lighthouse as a matchstick. It's significant because of its insignificance?


MJ Starling 07-04-2021 11:24 AM

I wonder if the painting is based on the William Brown sinking in 1841.

1) The rescue vessels were probably British according to the museum write up;.
2) Birch was from Philadelphia, which was also the destination of the William Brown.
3) The William Brown sank in 1841 - the same date as in the painting.
4) And William Brown’s rather scandalous story probably stirred up lots of coverage, which increases the likelihood that Birch was aware of the wreck.

I love to speculate! 😼

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