A slice of pure Americana, this oil ship portrait is an identifiable work by James Bard. The sky holds a graduated radiance of sunlight, with three clouds in the clear. With the nameboard and pennant so prominent there is no mistaking who the subject is, the sidewheel steamship JOHN BIRKBECK. Interesting to note that both end with a period after the name, as do the obvious initials on the forward flag staff.
Built in Athens, New York in 1854, the sidewheeler initially served as a tow boat, but was soon converted to passenger service. In this capacity, and later renamed J.G. Emmons in the 1880s, the ship served the immigrant center at Ellis Island until 1912. Her nine visible passengers are this day at more leisurely pursuits. Dressed in black coats and top hats, they proceed on the decks with a folk appearance of clockwork men, rigged and purpose driven. Bard painted two earlier versions of the steamship which reside in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the New York Historical Society. The version in the National Gallery has the two men on the forward deck engaged in a fistfight!
Nine is a repeating theme in this work. Not only the number of men, but nine Hudson River estates stand solemnly distant amongst the heavy foliage and irregular hills. While there are only four sailing yachts -a schooner and three cutters- they have nine sails aloft between them. In combination with the overall composition, this is a highly desirable work of art and piece of American, New York and steamship history.
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