Lisa N. Peters
An intriguing marine painting has just arrived at the gallery, showing a proud two-masted schooner anchored in a harbor at sunrise. It is by Joseph B. Smith (1798-1876), a ship and architectural scene renderer in oils and watercolors who was the son of the minister of New York’s John Street Methodist Church.* Smith spent his career in Brooklyn, where he opened a partnership known as “Joseph B. Smith and Son, Marine Artists” (his son was William S. Smith.)
What is compelling in the painting is its extreme level of detail and crispness, revealing that the artist was a scrupulous eye-witness, who sought to present an unfolding narrative within the “ship portrait” tradition. Moving across the water toward the schooner is a small rowboat with two passengers aboard who converse as they paddle together toward the vessel that towers above them; the figure in white who turns around to talk to his companion is presumably the one who will be going aboard–only one suitcase is visible in the small boat. The Annie Lewis still has her rowboat firmly tethered, further indicating that the smaller vessel is approaching rather than bringing passengers to the shore. That the ship is about to embark is confirmed in the figures visible on its deck, who engage in readying it for departure: one is at the wheel, another ties down a sail, others work in pairs. Given this level of specificity, it seems that we would readily be able to identify the harbor portrayed, in which buildings and land masses are in view at both left and right, but we have as yet not been able to pin it down. The land at the left has a vague resemblance to Governors Island, New York (another painting by Smith is entitled Off Governors Island). The building set off from the shore might be Castle Williams, but it is rectangular rather than spherical and farther from the shore than this well known still-standing fort.
A sheet of information (shown here), dated 1967 and adhered to the back of the painting, provides information on the ship’s history, including its builder, James M. Bayles & Son; the place it was built, Port, Jefferson, Long Island, New York; its launch date, July 9, 1863; and its owners through 1883, when the sheet indicates that the Annie Lewis “mysteriously disappeared after leaving Cedar Key, Florida, for Tampico, Mexico.”
One individual not listed on the sheet as an owner is Elias Lewis, who appears in a copy of an old photograph, also attached to the painting’s verso. This image (seen here) shows Lewis with his daughter Annie Lewis, at about age three, while its handwritten caption indicates that it was Annie for whom the ship was named. A date of ca. 1856 is given in this caption, but this is likely to be inaccurate due to research on ancestry.com, from which a census of 1870 lists as living in Brooklyn: Elias Lewis (grocer, age 40), his wife Mary A (housekeeping, age 29), and one child, Annie (age 11)–indicating that her birthdate was 1859. Further digging reveals that Lewis was the owner of the largest wholesale grocery house in Brooklyn in the 1870s—Valentine, Bergen & Company (Brooklyn Eagle, February 28, 1876)— and part of a group that in 1859 protested the banning of railroad locomotives within Brooklyn, leading to the closure of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel (which still lies mysteriously under this avenue). In the Brooklyn Eagle (1876), Lewis was quoted as saying how after this closure, goods for Long Island had to be delivered at James Slip to be taken to Hunter’s Point for delivery to the railroad. Lewis was active in the Long Island Historical Society (now the Brooklyn Historical Society), incorporated in 1863 (Brooklyn Eagle, November 24, 1876). In 1872, he also became president of the Brooklyn Bank, from which he retired in 1890 due to ill health (Brooklyn Eagle, October 16, 1890).
However, many questions about the painting prevail:
Did Lewis order the ship? He is not listed among the original owners, but it makes sense that he might have requisitioned the ship for use in his grocery business (although in the “Marine Intelligence” sections of the New York Times, which often recorded the clearances and arrivals of vessels in New York harbor including The Annie Lewis, the only goods mentioned on board the ship are coal and cotton, but that does not mean that these are all it transported). It seems likely that Lewis knew James M. Bayles, the ship’s builder, as Bayles was listed in the Port Jefferson 1868-69 Curtain’s Directory as a “grocer” in addition to being a shipbuilder. Among the ports to which the ship traveled were Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; and the farther destinations of Montevideo, Mexico, and Buenos Aires.
Was the painting commissioned by Lewis? Lewis undoubtedly knew Smith’s marine painting business situated in Brooklyn. It makes sense that Lewis would have hired Smith to paint this elegant vessel, which he had named for his daughter.
What is the date of the painting? We can only say at this point that it was painted after 1863 and before 1876, but we are hoping that someone will be able to identify its site, which might help with its dating. If the photograph of Lewis and his daughter was taken about the time that Smith created the painting, it would date from the period when the ship was new.
What harbor is portrayed? We would appreciate any help possible in identifying the site and the scene’s vantage point.
All this goes to show how many historical mysteries one painting can solve and leave unsolved.
*Paintings by Smith belong to the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts (including a crisply rendered view of the American steamer Tom Hunt, built in 1851 and a stunning view of the American clipper ship Golden West entering New York, built in 1852); the New-York Historical Society; the Amon Carter Museum; the Everson Museum; and the Museum of the City of New York. A number of Smith’s works were turned into lithographs by Currier and Ives.