This large and impressive portrait shows the tanker LAS PIEDRAS in the port of New York. Off her starboard bow, the tug STATEN ISLAND II stands ready to assist the larger ship as she passes between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Gray’s earthy depictions of maritime life are regularly sought after for their realism and narrative excellence. As a teenager, Gray developed his love for the sea and painting at about the same time. His significant time spent at sea familiarized him with the realities of maritime endeavor, which is portrayed genuinely in all of his paintings.
The LAS PIEDRAS was a T3 Tanker built for the Gulf Oil Company in 1953 at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Shipyard in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There was a significant increase in the demand for oil after WWII and the wartime destruction of European and Japanese shipbuilding industries put pressure on American yards to build tankers to meet demand. Between the end of the War and 1970 the Sparrows Point yard was the largest builder of tankers, 90 in all.
Gray’s use of light is particularly fine in this work. A warm, afternoon glow falls over the tanker’s stern reaching across the water’s surface to illuminate the deck of the nearby tug. Both ships show Gray’s trademark attention to detail and accuracy. The sea is active, causing the tug to sway while the tanker’s cargo keeps her unmoved by the waves. Similarly Gray has used a full palette of blues, greens and whites with active brushwork to show both an artistic and realistic view of the sea.
In the mid-1950’s Jack L. Gray moved to New York City and spent several years living aboard his 15-foot skiff named S.O.B, which, for a time, also served as his studio. In New York, he often obtained permission to paintfrom a vantage point on the deck of the decommissioned US Navy aircraft carrier ENTERPRISE. With these unique views of the harbor, Gray created an important body of work during his time in New York. His first New York showing was at the invitation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1955. This work was painted in this period, likely from a direct observation of the vessels in New York harbor.
This painting’s extraordinary petroleum industry provenance means that it was either a direct commission or a gift to owner William M. Keck. Keck founded Superior Oil Company in 1921 and quickly rose to become one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. Superior Oil was eventually purchased by ExxonMobil in the 1980’s. The painting likely came into Keck’s hands about the time he moved into his famous Southern California estate, Owlwood, in the mid 50’s as it is documented to have come from that collection. Keck was known to celebrate the oil industry in the décor of the house, including a 24 carat gold bathroom sink feature shaped like an oil rig. After Keck, the house was owned by actor Tony Curtis and later music duo Sonny and Cher. Owlwood is currently back on the Los Angeles real estate market for an offer price of $180 million. Today, decades after his passing, Keck is best known for the philanthropic foundation which bears his name. With assets in excess of $1B, the W.M. Keck foundation today focuses on science and education grants but any Californian will know the name for the foundation’s extensive support of public television.
The combination of Gray's mature excellence combined with a great history of ownership makes this a unique historical work of art.
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