Published: August 6, 2002
By Bob Jackman
SALEM, MASS. — “,” a striking exhibition of French maritime history, is currently on display at the Peabody Essex Museum featuring 175 works with a distinctly French decorative flair. A wide selection of works from the fine arts, decorative arts and folk art offers visitors many opportunities to locate objects matching their interests.
Peabody Essex maritime curator Daniel Finamore commented, “In terms of floor space, this is the largest exhibition ever presented at the museum. There is plenty of room to move among the artifacts and an opportunity to observe an object from all sides. There is not a tight path through the show. We want visitors to develop their own themes and freely select the objects that they perceive as connected.”
The Musee National De la Marine in Paris organized a traveling exhibition to internationally display the collection while its museum building is being renovated. The first venue was the Musee de la Civilization in Canada. The Peabody Essex show has many of the objects displayed in Canada, but it is also liberally substituted with other works from the Musse National de la Marine that better suit New England interests.
Ship models on display demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship and extreme attention to mechanical systems. The large scale of these models — 1:12 rather than the more common 1:20 — more effectively conveys the grand size of the original ships. Another distinctive aspect of the model collection is the use of open views, cutaway views and sometimes even an absence of sheathing to show rib and timber structures of a ship. These are models of ship interiors as well as exteriors, and the museum visitor has the opportunity to garner some glimpses of interior ship spaces and systems.
From an American perspective the most stunning models are those depicting ships not seen on this continent. While galleys disappeared from America with the Vikings, galleys dominated Asian and European seas from the Third Century BC (massive Indian teak galleys) through to the Seventeenth Century.
Visitors who behold the nine-foot-long model of the galley Dauphine will be struck with the power and sleekness of the vessel. Each side of the vessel has a bank of 29 oars. These are not one-man oars, however; six prisoners pulled each oar. While getting a galley of this size into motion was likely an arduous process, once underway, with the power of 348 rowers and sleek lines of the hull, the ship was probably swift. The vessel is also a strikingly beautiful object.
Some models such as the Protecteur represent a class of ship. It typifies the large, 64-gun square-rigged French warships that served during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Historically these were the ultimate version of the ships that drove galleys from the high seas. While galley combat depended upon ramming the galley bow into the side of an enemy vessel, these sail powered vessels disabled and sank rival ships with cannon fire from a distance. From an American perspective, the Protecteur is also interesting as a precursor to the first American warships in the late 1770s.
The most splendidly ornate ship model on exhibition, perhaps in the world, is the Dauphin Royal. The stern of this model is more ornately carved and gilded than an opera hall. As with most French models, the names of the craftsmen are bot known, although it is confirmed that this model was made in the Rochefort shipyard. A full-sized ship with this configuration was never constructed as the model was created as an educational tool for Louis XV’s son Louis, Dauphine de France (1729-1765).
Some models also embody both naval evolution and bureaucratic compromise. The corvette Jeanne d’Arc was constructed as the dawn of the modern steam-powered steel vessel (mid Nineteenth Century), and its model captures that moment in ship development. Its most revolutionary feature is a concave bow, a feature more commonly seen a century later. The model also, however, has many dualistic features that represent compromises between traditionalists favoring wooden sailing vessels and revolutionaries expounding the virtues of steel ships and steam power.
Cutaway elements of the model are particularly effective in demonstrating these dualistic systems. For example, the hull is traditionally constructed from wood and sheathed with steel and copper to protect against enemy bombardment and insect infestation. Power is supplied by sails and also by a steam boiler. To gain tactical position in battle, the ship used steam power, and to conserve oil when sailing on the open sea, the ship unfurled its sails. Weaponry included traditionally mounted cannons that could only fire from a broadside vantage and revolving turret guns that could be fired in any direction.
French Maritime History
Fortunately for Americans, France achieved its greatest naval presence about the time of the American Revolution. Despite extensive Atlantic and Mediterranean shorelines, until the Seventeenth Century French maritime interest was limited to fishing. During the 1620s Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), a powerful advisor to Louis XIII (1601-1643), aggressively advocated naval power and warships were purchased from The Netherlands and elsewhere. Richelieu also succeeded in establishing dockyards in Le Harve, Brest and Brourage.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), government minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) led the expansion of French naval and trade interests. To support French colonization of New France (now eastern Canada), Colbert established a new port at Rochefort. By 1681, the French navy had 170 vessels, and it became a concern to the dominant Dutch and English navies. In 1679, Colbert issued an edict requiring dockyards to produce scale models of their five classes of ships. The emphasis on models established by that edict initiated a tradition of producing the world’s finest maritime models, and those models provide the core of the current exhibition.
The most influential maritime advocate during the reign of Louis XV was Henri Louis Duhamel du Morceau (1700-1782), a scientist who became Inspector General of the Navy for the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 1739. Duhamel’s greatest contribution was developing education programs for marine architecture and medicine, and he established several educational institutions devoted to these fields. He used models to facilitate sharing of technologies between different shipyards and for education. In addition to continuing Colbert’s ship model program, Duhamel also initiated a model program for the various workshops associated with shipyard production. That began a tradition of mechanical models in which the French excel.
In 1740 France began challenging England’s domination of the seas, and by the Seven Years War (1767-1773) the French navy was a full equal to the English navy. The French Revolution of 1793 disrupted naval programs, but Napoleon would eventually reinstall them. The French navy has ebbed and flowed over the past two centuries with large expansions before both World War I and World War II.
The most exceptional aspect of the Musee National de la Marine collection is its extremely deep collection of models. In addition to ships, there are mechanical models of shipyard devices. A grand selection of models is displayed in a double-width room at the front of the exhibition. Beyond engineering precision, the models are striking decorative objects fashioned from the fine woods, veneers and hardware. For example, the model of the Maritz’s cannon drilling apparatus can also be seen as a beautifully fashioned piece of miniature Baroque furniture.
Perhaps the two most popular coastal motifs are lighthouses and windmills. There are no lighthouses in the show, although included is a rare and mighty windmill of great interest. From a distance the tall, thin tower with concave sides appears to be a cross between a windmill and lighthouse. Up close, the visitor sees that the base is a sawmill with a wind-driven mechanism. Huge timbers enter the mill through two doors at the front of the base, and sawn timbers exit through two doors at the rear (closed on display). The model includes interior mechanisms for transferring wind energy into sawing motion.
One of the most striking aspects of the model is that the sawmill base is designed to remain stationary as the windmill tower rotates. At the interface of the sections is a circular deck with baluster rail. The outer edges of beams supporting the deck have initials (NNE, NE, ENE, etc) that indicate points of a compass. A door over the deck provides access to the rotating upper tower. All windmill towers rotate to keep their sails facing into the wind so they capture the maximum amount of wind energy.
Many mechanical models provide answers to questions on early shipyard practices. For example, today sailboat masts are steeped by hoisting masts with diesel-powered, steel cranes, while an Eighteenth Century masting machine model on display depicts a three-timber crane operated by mechanical power. Materials and power source have changed, but the process is more similar than different.
Shipyard models also demonstrate the evolution of marine hardware. Paddlewheels propelled the first steam-powered vessels. Ships sailing narrow rivers were pushed by a sternwheel, and ocean-going vessels had a pair of sidewheels. In naval battles, rivals could easily blow apart an exposed sidewheel and disable the opposition. A need was identified for a method of propulsion that was under water, beneath the hull.
Frederic Sauvage applied the mechanical concept of the screw to this problem. He created a wooden prototype for a propeller with a single long blade with a full curvature of 360 degrees, which is on display. Experiments with Sauvage’s models identified problems with a single blade propeller, and those problems were solved with the multiblade propellers that are so pervasive today.
Paintings on display extend across a broad range of styles and subjects. The most distinctive feature of French maritime painting is the realistic rendering of the human form. The French developed a tradition of treating each human image as a portrait, and usually French artists provide more detailed renderings of human form and faces than seen elsewhere. On the whole, French maritime paintings tend to be more romantic than English works on the same subject. The French, however sometimes were more successful at depicting misery aboard ship as in “La Tempete,” which captures seasick passengers aboard a steamship.
The most pivotal painting of the exhibition is a huge work entitled “Le Port de Brest” by Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio that visually dominates the shipyard room. The beautiful landscape provides a view of the Brest shipyard, and shows the workshop of each trade involved in building and outfitting a ship. When visitors first discover this painting, they search out workshops using the dockyard models they have been examining. Then after viewing other models, they return to the painting to find the image of the associated workshops. This painting becomes a key for understanding how each craft worked and the path that a vessel followed as it progressed through the shipyard.
The exhibition also provides insight into the French penchant of painting each human in a maritime painting as a miniature portrait. A 95-inch-wide sketch, “Le Combat de La Bayonnaise Contre L’Ambuscade” by Louis-Philippe Crepin, shows that in planning a painting he classically drew each figure in the scene as a naked form so that he could capture natural movement and form. Crepin helped advance the portraiture standard in French scenes and established a standard against which other maritime artists were judged.
Naval battles are a popular subject for maritime paintings, and the exhibit includes a wide selection of these scenes. Crepin’s “Le Redoutable a la Bataille de Trafalgar” is a fine work of art depicting the battle of Trafalgar. Interesting details emerge at close range. A squad of marksmen is positioned in the rigging, the rope ladders ascending from the deck to the mast. Those marksmen were specifically shooting at British officers commanding the deck of the Victory. These were the marksmen who mortally wounded Admiral Nelson at this battle.
Some paintings in the exhibit have multiple story lines. For example, Guillaume Descamps’ “Le Roi Murate Recompense la Ceres” depicts a Neapolitan king who boarded the ship Ceres to distribute rewards among the crew after they had repelled a British attack. In the foreground, however, medical treatment is administered to injured sailors. This is one of the few early Nineteenth Century paintings depicting medical practices aboard warships.
A few paintings in the exhibit may offend American maritime collectors who desire realistic renderings of ship life. For example, Julien Le Blant’s (1851-1930) “Equipage dans une Batterie” depicts gunning crews at mess in a grand space with Vermeer-like enveloping light across the scene. Cruise ship passengers would like to have so much elbowroom. American maritime specialists emphasize that life below decks was crowded, dank, wet and moldy.
Many other fascinating artifacts are presented. As visitors enter the exhibition, they are greeted by the bow section of Marie Antoinette’s pleasure barge that cruised the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles. A nude maiden holding a lobster is held by a gilded serpent against the rail of barge. Her torso rests on an ornately carved and gilded shell supported by two other serpents. The white, graceful barge hull softens and balances the opulent carvings. It is a memorable object.
The most striking piece of furniture is a Seventeenth Century sailor chest with a carved and painted front and sides. In the Eighteenth Century the interior of the lid was painted with a folk art religious scene that is consistent with the early decoration.
Scuba divers will be thrilled to see the original scuba tank that Jacques Cousteau helped to invent during World War II. At that moment in time, scuba gear was intended for navy frogmen; inventors, however would soon realize its wider potential in a world at peace. The shiny chrome tank has an Art Deco appearance that jars one to recall that World War II occurred during the Art Deco period.
The Peabody Essex Museum offers a blend of art, architecture and culture. It is one of New England’s largest museums, with renown collections of maritime art and history, American decorative art, folk art, portraits, costumes and furniture; Native American art; art from Africa and art from China, Japan, Korea, India and Oceania. It also displays one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Asian decorative arts produced for the west.
These collections are set amid one of the nation’s premier ensembles of early American architecture. The museum owns four National Historic Landmarks and several properties on the national Register of Historic Places. Three of these homes are open daily for tours, offering a unique look at life, decorative art, and culture in Colonial and Federal-era America.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm. General admission is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and students 17 and older; and free for children 16 and under. Ticket house tours are $6. For information, 800-745-4054 or www.pem.org.
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