Antonio Jacobsen


broke the bank in the field of the American ship portrait, painting portraits of virtually every consequential oceangoing vessel that entered the Port of New York between 1875 and 1919. By the time of his death, the photograph had replaced the oil painting, and never again would an artist make a comfortable living strictly as aship portraitist. But Jacobsen certainly had, having produced as many as 6,000 ship portraits—paintings sometimes completed in little more than a day, at a cost to theartist of five dollars each.The son of a Danish violinmaker, Jacobsen left his native country at the age of 22, taking with him some musical training and a bit less artistic training. Upon hisarrival in New York in 1873, he traded on both skills. He seems to have played the cello and the viola as well as the violin, perhaps in a professional setting. Moreimportant, he was hired to paint decorative schemes on the doors of the Marvin Safe Company’s products; when a shipping line asked for a portrait of their ship rather than the standard garlands of flowers, his career was launched. Jacobsen seems to have sprung full-grown into his profession, for there are few halting examples of early work—he loved ships and he knew how to paint them.Once commissioned to paint a vessel, Jacobsen set out to draw the ship at dockside. He carried a small pocket notebook, and his drawings frequently extendedover a number of pages. In contrast to the highly detailed and exacting draftsmanship of his protégé James Bard, Jacobsen’s drawings were sketches at best. He didcapture all the salient details of the ship, however, and was able to convert these rough images into perfect semblances of the original. Though Jacobsen took hismeasurements at dockside, he always depicted the ship at sea, with the rough lines of the sketch converted into the fully faired sheer of a powerful ocean liner. Heworked in oil on canvas, and carefully maintained his collection of sketchbooks over the years. Often he was called upon to replicate an earlier work for another client,and it is not uncommon to find that up to a dozen paintings were created of any given ship. What with all the builders, owners, captains, and mates, there was noshortage of potential clients.Jacobsen’s mastery of the details of naval construction meant that his paintings showed little variation in the depiction of the ship over the years. His work does fallinto distinct periods, however, thanks to other details. The water in his earliest works, for example, is that of a boldly rolling open ocean. By the turn of the twentiethcentury, however, his seas had become choppier and less painterly. The waves he painted in his last years, especially in those paintings he executed on artists’ board,could seem nearly perfunctory as he rushed to complete a painting. They almost give credibility to the notion that one or more of his children helped him with this aspectof the paintings. By the end of his career, the competition of the camera had become irresistible, and he had turned his hand to historical paintings to keep bread on thetable. These retrospective paintings of clipper ships were undoubtedly good sellers, but they are among Jacobsen’s least satisfactory works.When Antonio Jacobsen set out to paint an ocean-going vessel at sea during the first twenty years of his career, he was without equal. When he painted a broadsideof a steam tugboat (captain at the wheel in striped shirt and suspenders) he was without peer. Jacobsen left behind a remarkable artistic record of a time when Americastill looked to the sea as a frontier full of opportunity, when being the “pride of the seas” was to be prideful indeed.
See also

James and John Bard; Maritime Folk Art;

Painting, American Folk
Sniffen, Harold S.
Antonio Jacobsen’s Painted Ships on Painted Oceans.
Newport News, Va., 1994.