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'The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America' opens at the Portland Museum of Art
James Guy Evans (United States, born England, circa 1810-1860), U.S. Ships of the Line "Delaware” and “North Carolina" and Frigates "Brandywine" and "Constellation," circa 1835–60, oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 44 1/8 inches. New-York Historical Society, Gift of an Anonymous Donor, X.160.

PORTLAND, ME.- The Coast & the Sea: Marine and Maritime Art in America is on view at the Portland Museum of Art January 30, 2015 through April 26, 2015. Organized by the New-York Historical Society, The Coast & the Sea features 52 marine paintings and 10 maritime artifacts from New-York Historical Society’s large and impressive collection.

Since the earliest voyages of European exploration, the destiny of the United States has always been linked to the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean, in particular, loomed large in the American consciousness as the geographical barrier between Old and New Worlds; the conduit for the global exchange of ideas, people, and things; and the basis for both national economic activity and personal fortune. Seafaring enterprises in America’s great harbors and port cities also supported the nation’s cultural development, prompting the rise of schools of maritime and landscape painting, as well as portraiture.

The Coast & the Sea explores the rich visual traditions of marine and maritime art through a diverse selection of paintings and objects that range in date from 1750 to 1904. For example, early 19th-century seascapes by Thomas Birch, who was considered the country’s first specialist in marine paintings, trace the adaptation of Anglo-Dutch painting conventions to an American context. Other highlights include spirited paintings of famous sea battles that celebrate the heroic feats of the U.S. Navy, and romanticized portrayals of ships in storms that symbolize life’s trials and the vicissitudes of nature.

There are portraits of esteemed merchants, mariners, and naval heroes, as well as of notable crafts, including the legendary naval frigate the USS Constitution (known as “Old Ironsides”). Views of bustling harbors and scenic sites along the water by leading landscape artists of the day—such as Samuel Colman, Sanford Gifford, John Frederick Kensett, and Francis Augustus Silva—showcase American waterways as a source of aesthetic inspiration, economic growth, and leisure activities. The global reach of American maritime activities is exemplified in a rare 19th-century painting by an unidentified Chinese artist, portraying the harbor of Canton.

Maritime artifacts such as an elaborately engraved whale's tooth scrimshaw from the mid19th century, a mariner's octant from 1840, and a handsome silver presentation tureen commemorating acts of bravery during the War of 1812 provide additional historical context for understanding the visual and material culture of seafaring life in the United States.

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