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Down To The Sea

July 2024
15min read

Edward Moran’s series of Victorian seascapes recall a vanished national mood—when the eagle screamed, when painters were sentimental and poets misty about the eyes.

I heard or seemed to hear the chiding Sea

Say, Pilgrim, why so late and slow to come?

Am I not always here … ?

… I with my hammer pounding evermore
The rocky coast, smite Andes into dust,

Strewing my bed, and, in another age,

Rebuild a continent of better men.

Then I unbar the doors: my paths lead out

The exodus of nations: I disperse

Men to all shores that front the hoary main. …

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Seashore”

At the height of his career—in 1885—the artist Edward Moran, then living in New York, launched a project that he considered the crowning glory of his artistic life. He would paint a series of thirteen pictures that would represent what he called the “Marine History of the United States,” from the first explorers up until his own time.

It was a natural theme for Moran: at the time, he was undoubtedly one of the most famous seascapists in the United States. The path to that eminence had had its beginnings in 1829 in a lowly weaver’s cottage in Lancashire, England, where the nearby Irish Sea provided the future artist with his first glimpse of a subject he would never tire of portraying. Edward Moran was the oldest son of a large family that included two other artists. His brother Thomas would become famous for his romantic canvases of the American West; another brother, Peter, would win renown as a painter of animals. At an early age Edward was put to work at the loom, but he found time now and then to sketch with charcoal.

In 1844 the Morans hopefully joined the thousands of poor English artisans then emigrating to the United States. They settled in Maryland, but the shore of the Chesapeake proved to be no more of an Eldorado than the shore of the Irish Sea, and the family was soon forced to fall back upon the weaver’s trade. This was not the promise that Edward Moran had hoped to find in America, and, still in his teens and without a cent in his pocket, he walked to Philadelphia in search of opportunity. He had—by chance—come to the right place. For most of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was the artistic capital of the United States, nurturing such talented artists as the Peales, Thomas Hovenden, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, and John Sloan.

After trying his hand at cabinetmaking and house painting, Moran again took up the shuttle, at the munificent salary of six dollars a week. And here might have ended another tale of disappointed expectations had it not been for a lucky break. One day Moran was surprised by the proprietor while drawing; instead of punishing the young man for neglecting his work, his employer recognized the artistic promise in the sketch and had the good sense to introduce him to Paul Weber, one of the city’s most prominent landscape painters. Weber took him on as a pupil, and later Moran studied with another Philadelphia artist, James Hamilton, who guided him to marine painting. Philadelphia had a strong tradition in that genre; the city had been the home of Thomas Birch, America’s first marine artist. Birch had died in 1851, but his canvases—many of which hung in the Pennsylvania Academy—undoubtedly were well known to Moran. One of them, Stephen Decatur’s Escape After Setting Fire to the Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, depicted an event Moran would include in his series.

The young artist was not long in attaining some recognition, and by 1862 he had sufficient funds to go to London and study at the Royal Academy. While there he was much influenced by the dramatic sea pieces of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and also by the historical painter William Clarkson Stanfield.

Moran soon returned to the United States and before long began to receive so many commissions that he could scarcely handle them. Almost all were related to the sea; indeed, a list of Moran’s pictures reads like a guidebook to America’s eastern littoral: Virginia Sands, A Squally Day off Newport, Massachusetts Bay, Off Block Island, Aloonrise at Nahant.

When Moran came to paint his great marine series, he organized it around the number thirteen, which he felt had a symbolic, almost religious, meaning for the country. A friend later explained his reasoning:

The original colonies were thirteen, and also the first States; the first order for the creation of a navy was for thirteen warships; there were and still are thirteen stripes, and there were originally thirteen stars, on our flag; on our coat of arms a mailed hand grasps thirteen arrows, as do also the left talons of the eagle, while in its right is an olive branch with thirteen leaves; there were also thirteen rattles on the snake on the first American flag, with the motto “Don’t tread on me.” It was on February 13, 1778, in the harbor of Quiberon, that the American flag received its first recognition by a foreign government … thirteen years elapsed between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the inauguration of the first President, General Washington, in 1789; and the Louisiana Purchase from France includes the area prospectively covered by thirteen States…

Moran set the numerological theme in the very first painting of his series, The Ocean: thirteen gulls hover over the water, symbolizing the important events in American history linked with that number.

In his determination to present history in a chronological series of paintings, Moran was very much a child of his era. This was an artistic device much favored by sculptors, easel painters, and muralists in the nineteenth century. At the time Moran was working on his series, John Singer Sargent was doing a mural for the Boston Public Library depicting the development of religious thought from the pagan into the Christian era. And of course Moran would have been aware of the eight monumental historical paintings in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. Two of them, Robert Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims and John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus, deal with subjects that he included in his own series; a third, by William H. Powell, depicts the discovery of the Mississippi by de Soto, whose burial Moran was to paint.

Moran worked on his project almost until his death in the spring of 1901, less than two years after the event portrayed in the final canvas, the triumphal return of the United States fleet from the Spanish-American War. He had presented the paintings to his wife, but her claim to them was disputed after his death by the executor of the artist’s estate, and only after repeated legal battles was Mrs. Moran’s title secured. When she died in 1904, Theodore Sutro, who had been her counsel, came into possession of the paintings. In the late twenties, Paul Sutro, a nephew, presented them to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission with the stipulation that the collection be “hung at all times in a public gallery.” When he discovered that they were not being shown, he retrieved them and, in 1940, presented the set to the United States Naval Academy. There, cleaned and properly displayed, all thirteen may now be seen.

Sixty-three years ago—in 1904—the series was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. At that time the art critic of the New York Herald wrote: “The exhibition of these pictures of scenes connected with the history of the United States is not only an artistic but an educational event … It is hoped that the school children of the city will be taken to see and study them.” Nine years after these words were written, however, the Armory Show burst upon New York and America; within a generation the sudden popularity of the new styles it had introduced—Cubism, Fauvism—submerged the reputation of traditional painters like Edward Moran. Among most artists, critics, and gallery owners the idea of painting a picture that attempted to educate soon seemed quaint indeed, and Moran’s great series fell into disfavor.

The series is reproduced in this issue in its entirety, for the first time in more than half a century. Accompanying each painting is a quotation from a nineteenth-century American writer who was inspired by the same events that stirred the artist. Together the words and pictures constitute a document of a time when painters and poets gloried in recalling our past, and when historians, orators, and even reporters were not ashamed to use rhetoric to celebrate our nation’s history.

Moran's Landing of Lief Ericson in the New World in 1001

We come, the children of thy Vinland,
The youngest of the world’s high peers,
O land of steel, and song, and saga,

To greet thy glorious thousand years!

Across that sea the son of Erik

Dared with his venturous dragon’s prow;

From shores where Thorfinn set thy banner,

Their latest children seek thee now.

Hail, mother-land of skalds and heroes,

By love of freedom hither hurled,

Fire in their hearts as in thy mountains,

And strength like thine to shake the world!

* * *

What though thy native harps be silent,

The chord they struck shall ours prolong:

We claim thee kindred, call thee mother,

O land of saga, steel, and song!

—Bayard Taylor “America to Iceland”
Moran's The Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta (Evening of October 11, 1492)

I see a galleon of Spanish make

That westward like a wingéd creature flies

Above a sea dawn-bright, and arched with skies

Expectant of the sun and morning-break.

The sailors from the deck their land-thirst slake

With peering o’er the waves, until their eyes

Discern a coast that faint and dream-like lies,

The while they pray, weep, laugh,—or madly take

Their shipmates in their arms and speak no word.

And then I see a figure, tall, removed

A little from the others, as behooved,

That since the dawn has neither spoke nor stirred;

A noble form the looming mast beside,

Columbus, calm, his prescience verified. 

Richard Burton “Columbus, the Discoverer”

Moran's The Debarkation of Columbus (Morning of October 12, 1492)

It was on Friday morning, the 12th of October, that Columbus first beheld the new world. As the day dawned he saw before him a level island, several leagues in extent, and covered with trees like a continual orchard.… Columbus made signal for the ships to cast anchor, and the boats to be manned and armed. He entered his own boat, richly attired in scarlet, and holding the royal standard; whilst Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and Vincent Jañez, his brother, put off in company in their boats, each with a banner of the enterprise emblazoned with a green cross. …

As he approached the shore, Columbus, who was disposed for all kinds of agreeable impressions, was delighted with the purity and suavity of the atmosphere, the crystal transparency of the sea, and the extraordinary beauty of the vegetation. He beheld, also, fruits of an unknown kind upon the trees which overhung the shores. On landing he threw himself on his knees, kissed the earth, and returned thanks to God with tears of joy. His example was followed by the rest, whose hearts indeed overflowed with the same feelings of gratitude. Columbus then rising drew his sword, displayed the royal standard, and assembling round him the two captains, with Rodrigo de Escobedo, notary of the armament, Rodrigo Sanchez, and the rest who had landed, he took solemn possession in the name of the Castilian sovereigns, giving the island the name of San Salvador.

Washington Irving The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus

Moran's Midnight Mass on the Mississippi over the body of de Soto, 1542

Deep buried in the ooze of centuries,

Wrapped in the mighty river’s winding-sheet,

That which the world once called de Soto lies …

But yet no part of him, no grasp for power,

No strenuous aim, no hope, has passed away,

No wrongful act but blasts this very hour,—

All, all his acts are seeds that sprout to-day:

And yet for him—sleep, and through all the years

The endless drone of waters in deaf ears.


Moran's Henry Hudson Entering New York Bay (September 11, 1609)

Out from the harbour of Amsterdam

The Half Moon turned her prow to sea …

Westward they steered their tiny bark,

Westward through weary weeks they sped,

Till the cold grey strand of a stranger-land

Loomed through the mist ahead. …

They sailed to the North—they sailed to the 
And at last they rounded an arm of sand

Which held the sea from a harbour’s mouth—

The loveliest in the land …

 Burton Egbert Stevenson “Henry Hudson’s Quest”
Moran's Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Southampton (August 5, 1620)
Methinks I see it now, that one solitary, adventurous vessel, the Mayflower of a forlorn hope, freighted with the prospects of a future state, and bound across the unknown sea. I behold it pursuing, with a thousand misgivings, the uncertain, the tedious voyage.

… The awful voice of the storm howls through the rigging. The laboring masts seem straining from their base;—the dismal sound of the pumps is heard;—the ship leaps, as it were madly, from billow to billow;—the ocean breaks, and settles with engulphing floods over the floating deck, and beats with deadening shivering weight, against the staggered vessel.—I see them, escaped from these perils, pursuing their all but desperate undertaking, and landed at last, after a five months passage, on the ice clad rocks of Plymouth,—weak and weary from the voyage,—poorly armed, scantily provisioned, depending on the charity of their ship-master for a draught of beer on board, drinking nothing but water on shore,—without shelter,—without means,—surrounded by hostile tribes. Shut now the volume of history, and tell me on any principle of human probability, what shall be the fate of this handful of adventurers.… Is it possible, that from a beginning so feeble, so frail, so worthy, not so much of admiration as of pity, there has gone forth a progress so steady, a growth so wonderful, an expansion so ample, a reality so important, a promise, yet to be fulfilled, so glorious?

—Edward Everett, from an oration at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 22, 1824

Moran's First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government (In the Harbor of Quiberon, France, February 13, 1778)

Strong in the breeze at the mainmast top there flew the sullen Snake,

“DON’T TREAD ON ME!” his warning plain for friend and foe to take …

Like a dolphin leapt the Ranger through the mist of the salt sea spray,

Like a panther kept her keen nose down to smell the scent of her prey;

And each hearty aboard saw glory ahead and felt good luck in his bones,

For the ship and crew were staunch and true and our captain was JOHN PAUL JONES.

* * *

We looked at him and he looked at us and, silent still, he laid

His hand on the halliards and lowered straight the flag we so proudly displayed.

“What is this?” we asked. “Has he traitor turned? By God! it shall go right hard

But we stretch his neck from the quarter deck to the end of yonder yard!”

The Captain read our thoughts and smiled, then raised his hand, and said:

“When I am false to my land, my men, may lightning strike me dead!

I have lowered the flag, ‘t is true; but see! another its place will take—

The Stars and Stripes of the Thirteen States shall fly in the place of the Snake.”

* * *

Far off in the harbour the Admiral heard the sound of our cheers, and he

With all of his fleet weighed anchor then and straightway put to sea;

But when he saw the Stars and Stripes saluting his own ensign

Then down in salute came the Lilies of France on all the ships-of-the-line.…

And there in the light of the open sea GOD’S wind first kissed the sign

That freedom was born to men of our race and all of our children’s line;

And there to GOD on His pathless deep and under His rosy sky,

His sea-birds screaming around the Flag, we swore for that Sign to die.

Barrett Eastman “The Baptism of the Flag”

Moran's Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia (in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1894)

In 1803 the command of our fleet in the Mediterranean was taken by Commodore Preble, who had just succeeded in forcing satisfaction from Morocco for an attack made upon our merchantmen by a vessel from Tangier. He also proclaimed a blockade of Tripoli… when the news reached him that the frigate Philadelphia, forty-four guns … had been surrounded and captured. … The Tripolitans… towed her into the harbor, and anchored her close under the guns of their forts. They also replaced her batteries, and prepared to make her ready for sea, where she would have been a most formidable danger to our shipping.

Under these circumstances Stephen Decatur, a young lieutenant in command of the Enterprise, offered to Commodore Preble to go into the harbor and destroy the Philadelphia. … A small vessel… named the Intrepid [was] assigned to him. …

The Philadelphia, with forty guns mounted, doubleshotted, and ready for firing, and manned by a full complement of men, was moored within half a gunshot of the Bashaw’s … batteries. … Some Tripolitan cruisers, two galleys, and nineteen gunboats also lay between the Philadelphia and the shore. Into the midst of this powerful armament Decatur had to go with his little vessel… and … a crew of seventy-five men. …

He… drifted to within nearly twenty yards of the Philadelphia. … and when [the Tripolitans] hailed the Intrepid, the pilot answered that they had lost their anchors in a gale, and asked that they might run a warp to the frigate and ride by her. While the talk went on the Intrepid’s boat shoved off with the rope, and pulling to the fore-chains of the Philadelphia, made the line fast. …

The suspicions of the Tripolitans were now at last awakened. They raised the cry of “Americanos!” … Decatur sprang up the main chains of the Philadelphia , calling out the order to board.… There was a very short struggle, and the Tripolitans, crowded together, terrified and surprised, were cut down or driven overboard. In five minutes the ship was cleared of the enemy.

Decatur … gave orders to burn the ship, and … in a few minutes, so well and quickly was the work done, the flames broke out in all parts of the Philadelphia. As soon as this was effected the order was given to return to the Intrepid. Without confusion the men obeyed. ... The cables were cut, the sweeps got out, and the Intrepid drew rapidly away from the burning frigate.… then the Philadelphia, a mass of flames, drifted across the harbor and blew up. Meantime the … Intrepid … escaped successfully …

In the years that have elapsed, and among the great events that have occurred since that time, Decatur’s burning of the Philadelphia has been well-nigh forgotten; but it is one of those feats of arms which illustrate the high courage of American seamen, and which ought always to be remembered.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Hero Tales from American History

Moran's The Brig Armstrong Engaging the British Fleet (in the Harbor of Fayal, September 26, 1814)

To the port of Fayal Britain pays a sunset call:

A frigate, brig, and seventy-four come sailing slant and sheer

With their guns full sixscore and a thousand men or more

To teach the art of fighting to a Yankee Privateer.

With his trust in the Lord and his hand upon his sword,

His ninety men about him, and our banner looking down,

Gallant Reid clears for fight in the moonlit Azore night

To forge a stunning thunderbolt against the British Crown.

Oh, the moon shines like day as their boats get under way

And bear down on the Armstrong with intentions fell and black …

* * *

All our guns hurl their shot as they burst upon us hot;

They rattle on our bulwarks, slashing at the boarding-net.

We’ve a blow for each head and a pistol full of lead,

And on the Armstrong ’s angry deck no British loot is let.

* * *

Then their brig slowly wears, and her shining battery glares

Upon us for a moment, till we blow her back in shame;

But the great seventy-four takes her station near the shore,

And Reid leads off his gallant men, and sets his ship a-flame.…

Wallace Rice “A Yankee Privateer”

Moran's Sinking of the Cumberland by the Merrimac (in Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862)

At anchor in Hampton Roads we lay,

On board of the Cumberland , sloop-of-war;

And at times from the fortress across the bay

The alarum of drums swept past,

Or a bugle blast

From the camp on the shore.

Then far away to the south uprose

A little feather of snow-white smoke,

And we knew that the iron ship of our foes

Was steadily steering its course

To try the force

Of our ribs of oak.

Down upon us heavily runs,

Silent and sullen, the floating fort;

Then comes a puff of smoke from her guns,

And leaps the terrible death,

With fiery breath,

From each open port. …

“Strike your flag!” the rebel cries,

In his arrogant old plantation strain.

“Never!” our gallant Morris replies:

“It is better to sink than to yield!”

And the whole air pealed

With the cheers of our men.

Then, like a kraken huge and black,

She crushed our ribs in her iron grasp!

Down went the Cumberland all a wrack,

With a sudden shudder of death,

And the cannon’s breath

For her dying gasp.

* * *

Ho! brave hearts that went down in the seas!

Ye are at peace in the troubled stream;

Ho! brave land! with hearts like these,

Thy flag, that is rent in twain,

Shall be one again,

And without a seam!

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowThe Cumberland”
Moran's The White Squadron's Farewell Salute to the Body of Captain John Ericsson

Captain John Ericsson’s Body on Its Way to Sweden The Inventor of the Monitor Honored Yesterday by an Impressive Display on Land and Water

This city was the scene yesterday of one of the most remarkable tributes ever paid by a people to the memory of a great man. It was the day appointed for the removal of the remains of Captain John Ericsson from this country, which he loved so well and for which he did so much, to the land of his birth, where he was held in as high esteem as here. … The scene across the water to Bedlow’s Island and far down toward Staten Island was a lively and a picturesque one, dotted with every conceivable form of craft.…

Shortly after 12 o’clock the Despatch, flying Secretary [of the Navy Benjamin F.] Tracy’s flag, steamed around from the navy yard and dropped her anchor. … Next her lay the Baltimore, scrubbed and polished, and with the faintest evidences of steam up, preparatory to her long ocean voyage to Sweden. Then came the Dolphin.… The Petrel… and the Pensacola … were next in line, while beyond them lay the Enterprise, the Chicago, the Atlanta, and the Yorktown, each with colors half-masted, each doing honor to that genius to which the modern navy owes its evolution. …

An instance of the universal reverence in which the memory of the great inventor is held was seen in the generous display of half-masted flags. Every little schooner and sloop, each one of the innumerable tugs, and all the ferries and steamers contributed to the patriotic sentiment of the scene by displaying the American colors. …

—New York Times, August 24, 1890

Moran's Return of the Conquerors. Typifying Our Victory in the Late Spanish-American War (September 29, 1899)

To eastward ringing, to westward winging, o’er mapless miles of sea,

On winds and tides the gospel rides that the furthermost isles are free…

Mother! new-found, beloved, and strong to hold from harm,

Stretching to these across the seas the shield of her sovereign arm,

Who summoned the guns of her sailor sons, who bade her navies roam,

Who calls again to the leagues of main, and who calls them this time Home!

* * *

Yes, it is good to battle, and good to be strong and free,

To carry the hearts of a people to the uttermost ends of sea …

But better the golden evening when the ships round heads for home,

And the long gray miles slip swiftly past in a swirl of seething foam,

And the people wait at the haven’s gate to greet the men who win!

Thank God for peace! Thank God for peace, when the great gray ships come in!

Guy Wetmore Carryl “When the Great Gray Ships Come In”


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