A large British sailing ship wearing a "Red Duster", the civil ensign of the United Kingdom, is shown being towed by a steam tug through what appears to be a fleet of racing yachts. The tug flies a large American jack on her jack staff, attesting to the scene being an American narrative. The merchant vessel flies a red and black flag, the international code signal for a gale warning, at the top of her main hoist, signaling to all of a fast approaching gale. Except for her jibs and spanker, the ship's sails are all "harbor furled", wrapped tightly on their yards, suggesting the ship is being towed in after being rescued at sea by the tug.
The view is likely off the approaches to New York harbor, a favored Buttersworth subject area and location of several of the New York Yacht Club's race courses. The primary schooner in the left foreground shows her owner's private signal, a red swallowtail with blue diagonal stripes. Records of the New York Yacht Club designate this to be the 77 foot long ARIEL, launched in 1873 and belonging to Colonel Francis L. Leland (1839-1916). Leland was a prominent American economist and for many years, president of the New York County Bank. Between 1873 and 1876, ARIEL was the popular flagship of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club in Oyster Bay, of which Leland was also a member, and a neighboring competitor of the NYYC.
The wind is blowing offshore, and the schooners in the racing fleet are enjoying brisk conditions. The seas are animated and lively and all sails are full and drawing. However, as they see the gale warning flag on the merchant ship, sails will soon be taken in and the vessels will make for the shelter of home or the nearest port.
James Buttersworth was a celebrated narrative painter, and this image tells a fascinating tale, showcasing his meticulous draftsmanship and accurate modeling of 19th century vessels. The exceptional lighting and expressive atmosphere are among the finest examples of the Buttersworth oeuvre.
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