Marine paintings, particularly of 19th century sailing ships, are currently in keen demand. The bulk of these works were painted after the Treaty of Versailles (1818) which ended the trade-suffocating Napoleonic wars- and launched a century of dramatic global commercial expansion right up through the start of World War I. These paintings were often seen as expressions of national exuberance and vigor manifest in the drive to capture world-wide markets.
One popular genre was China Trade paintings of clipper and other merchant ships plying between American, English/ Continental and Chinese ports. These images were painted by Chinese artists who, starting in the late 18th century, had mastered the western style of painting, some under the tutelage of western artists residing in Chinese ports, particularly Macao, others simply as masterful copyists. These Chinese painters often would pre-paint canvases with backgrounds featuring Chinese harbors (particularly Hong Kong), Canton and Whampoa, or the open ocean, either stormy or calm. They would then literally row out to arriving ships and pitch their paintings to captains or super-cargos (a ship’s commercial agent). If a ship was scheduled to leave port in a few days....no problem. The China Trade painter, knowing he need only paint the ship into an already finished canvas, could promise to be back in a day or two. The charm of these quick and easy portraits rests on the beauty of the subject itself, and the painstaking accuracy of the drawing (rigging, etc.), as well as the historical ramifications. Many of these paintings ended up in homes (or attics) of 19th century New England captains, only to surface when heirs or executors realized their recent surge in market value.
These paintings are wonderful windows on 19th century global history. Usually, ship names (a ship is a sailing vessel with three or more masts) were visible in the paintings and ownership could be further traced by researching the house flag often flown from the main mast. By checking a variety of ship registries, one can sometimes pinpoint the year, occasionally even the month, when a ship in a China Trade painting turned up in a Chinese port. Staffs at such maritime museums as Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; Maine Maritime Museum, Bath, ME; Penobscot Maritime Museum, Searsport, ME and the Maritime Museum in Newport News, VA can often assist for a modest fee.
When considering a China Trade painting, look for cracqueleur (tiny fissures) in the painting’s surface – these are the result of China Trade canvases and paints drying out and literally cracking (remember, many were rolled up still wet, and thrown in a captain’s quarters, to be later framed and hung over a fireplace in Maine or New Hampshire). Some collectors will never restore China Trade canvases through inpainting (filling the cracks) for fear of destroying a painting’s historic purity. Others will have skilled restorers partially fill the cracks and have the entire canvas backed or “lined” with a new canvas and re-stretched to stabilize the painting to prevent further deterioration. Whatever, beware the China Trade painting that doesn’t have visible cracqueleur – either original or stabilized. Chances are the painting is a copy or is in such unusual condition that it belongs in a museum.
Be sure always to get a full description in writing of any restoration to a China Trade painting, preferably a before-and-after condition report from the painting’s restorer himself. Also, ask the dealer to show you the painting under a black (ultra violet) light in a dark room. The light will reflect darkly off recent inpainting and repairs, less darkly but still distinctively off older repairs. It is not unusual for to a China Trade painting to have gone through two or more “campaigns” of restoration. Top restorers often spend more time on a China Trade painting simply cleaning it and then undoing the less skillful, and often unnecessary, work of previous restorers. Whatever, don’t be put off by restoration(s). They are part of China Trade painting’s history and provenance.