In this scene of heated battle a French pirate ship flying the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger is pursued by a brig of the Royal Navy off England’s chalk cliffs of Dover. The ships fire broadsides at each other and smoke rises between them as crews fill the deck to work the sails and outmaneuver their enemy. The pirate’s shots splash off the stern of the brig though they’ve made several hits on the brig already as evidenced by the holes in her sails. The brig is giving back, doing damage to the pirate’s rig as well.
This is a fight to the death for either ship- the pirates face a death sentence for attacking under the Jolly Roger, while the Royal Naval sailors, having chosen not to surrender or flee at the first sign of the famous pirate flag, face at least a pitched battle, if not outright slaughter if captured. In fact, the pirate flies another symbol on her mainmast- a plain red flag, also commonly used by French pirates to indicate that no mercy would be shown to the captured. The term Jolly Roger is thought to come from this flag, the "Joli Rouge" or "Pretty Red", flown to show the pirates were ready to spill blood and give no quarter.
The artist has set both ships under a colorful and luminous afternoon sky which only further dramatizes the scene of intense action below. Both ships are filled with frenetic activity and there is a great feeling of speed with the ships cutting through the waves with sails fully to the wind.
Paintings of pirate actions are uncommon, but period scenes of a pirate ship flying a pirate flag are very rare. The flags were flown only to signal attack, as simply possessing one was a crime. Once a ship hoisted the flag it was outright admission of piracy. There was no going back for her crew- it was win or die.
The pirate ship is of French design- a chasse-marée, a type of coastal ship which worked the tides. Though the design was in general use in the 16th century, by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, these ships were primarily used as smugglers and privateers. The ships were modified to a lug rig based on fishing vessels, but refined to the highest possible pitch for speed. The modified ships carried a large spread of canvas, but had the downside of requiring a large crew to handle the sails and man the guns.
This is a great early period painting of a rare subject matter, done in a skilled hand. A great collector's piece.
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