This unique nighttime portrait shows a stately steam vessel navigating New York’s Hudson River. The Steamship C.W. MORSE, aka U.S.S. C.W. MORSE was built in 1903 by Harlan and Hollingsworth Co. with an engine and boilers by W.A. Fletcher & Co., both of Wilmington, Delaware. The 4,300 ton, 411 foot steamer was made for The Peoples Line of Steamships, one of two lines that made up the Hudson River Night Line service. Steamships traveling back and forth between New York and Albany were critical to commerce and transportation between 1845 and the 1930’s, and to the military during the Civil War and World War I. The Night Line ships were specifically built for night travel, with staterooms for those that wished to sleep and searchlights for those that wanted to watch the ships make their way down the dark Hudson.
The ship was named for then owner of the Peoples Line, Charles Wyman Morse. Founded in 1835, Morse purchased the company in 1902 as part of his large and growing empire of steamship lines. Morse was a very well-known businessman and public figure in the period. A more detailed biography is included below.
Jacobsen painted the ship directly for Morse, displaying her as she would have sailed through the night, decks lit and crowded with passengers, particularly on the forward decks to get the best view of the searchlight’s gaze. Outstanding detail is present throughout. The vessel’s bright white hull reflects off the water while the far shore shows glimpses of green and golden foliage, all under a starlight sky. While one of the most accomplished and prolific ship’s portraitists to have ever lived, Jacobsen’s night scenes are very rare among his works. Additionally this is a larger work than most of his portraits, sized to the prominence and resources of the ship’s namesake.
The ship was leased by the U.S. Navy during World War I and served as a receiving ship in New York harbor during the war. Afterward she was decommissioned and returned to her former owner to continue running the Hudson River Night Line route through 1927.
Charles W. Morse was one of the most wealthy and prominent public figures of the early 20th century. Called the “Ice King,” Morse was a financier and steamship magnate often compared to businessmen J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Born into a Maine shipbuilding family, he grew up in the family business focused on the operations of steam tugs on the Kennebec River, primarily transporting ice south from Maine and returning with cargoes of lumber and coal, profitable both ways.
Early successes in the family business led him to create his own shipping firm right out of college. Morse used his experience for both financial and political gains, consolidating the ice business and driving out or acquiring his competition and then offering stock to Tammany Hall politicians to ensure only his ice was allowed into the port of New York. At the same time, Morse was rapidly acquiring and consolidating steamship companies, starting in the Bath area and moving south. Within five years Morse-owned steamship companies controlled most of the traffic on the Atlantic seaboard from Maine down to Galveston, Texas and across to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Morse paid for his acquisitions through heavy leveraging of his various companies but eventually needed to seek liquid funding sources directly by getting involved in the banking industry and shortly either owned, controlled or served as a director for more than a dozen banks in the New York area.
The year this painting was made, 1907, Morse was involved in a scheme to corner the copper market, the failure of which caused the “Panic of 1907” the first major financial crisis of the 20th Century which nearly collapsed the New York Stock Exchange and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.
For his role in the scheme Morse was forced to remove himself from all banking positions and he was indicted for conspiracy, misapplication of funds and making false bank entries. Though others were indicted at the time, Morse was considered the mastermind and after a very public trial he was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison.
From the time he entered prison in 1908, Morse fought his sentence on the grounds that he was a scapegoat for the Panic, and that he was being punished for doing what all business leaders did routinely and without penalty. For the next few years Morse’s attorneys badgered president William Howard Taft and Attorney General George Wickersham in the hope of a pardon. Taft was unmoved until Morse started showing signs of illness- kidney failure and heart problems. Taft had him observed by prison and military doctors who felt he had six months or less left to live and Taft was finally moved to commute his sentence in 1912. A few weeks after his release Morse had a remarkable recovery, and it was found that he had ingested soap flakes in prison to mimic kidney failure. Taft was livid but it was too late to do anything about it.
Morse tried to rebuild his fortune and was partially able to do so because of the outbreak of World War I, mostly through his shipbuilding enterprises, though heavy leveraging left him overextended at the war’s end. Suspected of misdirecting funds and war profiteering, Morse was again indicted and was fighting charges and lawsuits related to his businesses continually between 1920 and 1926 when after a stroke he was deemed unfit to serve trial and all remaining charges were dismissed. He maintained his innocence through his many years in court and until his death in 1933. Some believe he is one of the businessmen who inspired the board game “Monopoly”.
This painting was a direct commission to the artist by Charles Morse and the painting was passed down from him to his son Franklin and thence by descent through the family until the present day.
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