One of the nineteenth century’s premier naval artists, Julian Oliver Davidson (1853-1894) was born in Cumberland, Maryland to a family of education and means. As a child, Davidson made five trips to Cuba, sailing with his engineer father who was overseeing railroad construction in that country. Thus began Davidson’s love for the ocean, a passion that would inform his personal and professional life thereafter.
At the age of seventeen, Davidson ran away to sea, crewing on ships that traveled to the Mediterranean and Orient. He returned home, laden with sketchbooks and paintings from his experiences, and, settling in New York, undertook instruction with the Dutch painter Mauritz F. H. de Haas in the legendary Tenth Street Studio Building. There, he came into contact with Hudson River luminaries such as Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Stanford R. Gifford. The romantic sensibilities of the Hudson River school can be seen in the vigor and vitality of Davidson’s marine scenes and large history paintings, including a series of works documenting key naval engagements of the War of 1812.
(The Charleston Renaissance Gallery at fada.com)
Julian O. Davidson is best known for his commissioned paintings of American naval engagements. He also authored and illustrated childrens’ books, America’s cup races for magazines and was a champion rower. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nyack Rowing Association. His career shortened by a sudden illness, combined with the loss of some known works, makes original art by Davidson a rare commodity today. Born to family of noticeable wealth and artistic inclinations, and after a military school education and a brief apprenticeship in his father’s engineering firm, he struck out on his own at 17. He literally “ran away to sea” as he would later call it. Joining the crew of the pacific mail steamship ARIZONA, bound for the orient by way of the Mediterranean Sea, he was onboard when she became the first American vessel to travel the Suez Canal. Davidson filled sketch books with the varied scenes he observed on his world travels, which aided him in several future artistic ventures.
The Battle of Lake Erie
The Battle of Lake Erie was fought on September 10, 1813; the extraordinary lead-up to the battle is part of what makes it so significant and exciting. The story begins a year and a quarter earlier, just three weeks after war was declared on June 18, 1812. Slightly less than two thousand US ground troops under the command of William Hull invaded Canada but failed to capture the British fleet moored in Malden, their Canadian home port on the northwestern end of Lake Erie. When the Indians and British sent in their reinforcement troops, the American troops retreated back to Fort Detroit and thinking they were outnumbered and about to be slaughtered, surrender without a shot being fired. Missing the support from Fort Detroit, other American frontier forts and significant areas to the west were also lost. Upon hearing this news, Congress fell back upon “Plan B”: i.e., build (and pay for) America’s first naval fleet of wooden warships from forests that lined Lake Erie’s southern shores, and then engage the British in a naval battle on Lake Erie. When General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the British in July 1812, Daniel Dobbins hid neck deep under a half sunken gunboat to avoid capture. Dobbins was the experienced captain of the merchant ship Salina, trading in furs and other goods; he often traveled between Lake Huron and his homeport on Lake Erie. Under the cover of darkness, Dobbins swam to a passing Frenchman in a canoe and was rescued. Eventually, after sailing a boatload of sick and wounded soldiers back to Cleveland, he made his way to Washington, D.C., to give eyewitness testimony to Congress about the surrender of Detroit and other losses suffered in the Upper Lakes region. After hearing Dobbins’ testimony, Congress decided that his extensive knowledge of the Great Lakes coastline qualified him to select the location for the new shipyard. As a reward for his heroism, on September 16, 1812, he was appointed Sailingmaster in the United States Navy in charge of the soon-to-be Presque Ile, Erie, shipyards.....
US Brig Niagara Photo
©1993 Maritime Collectors
Through the smoke, the Brig Claredonia and other ships of the American fleet can be seen in the positions they actually occupied; flanked behind the Niagara (above), on the far left, the Sloop Trippe can be seen firing her guns. The profile of the Niagara matches the original plans drawn by Naval Architect Henry Eckford; the warring ships are "at half pistol shot distance apart," as Perry's log indicates. Judging from the thick smoke and fire, Perry's cannons appear to have been double loaded and are blasting out of both sides of the ship, attacking four opponents at once. Kentucky sharpshooters can be seen shooting rifles from up in the sails, killing everything that moves on the enemy decks. Perry’s blue and white pennant reading, "Don't give up the ship" is flying, and the ship's rigging is correct. The water is rendered accurately as flat waves found off the western shores of Put-in-Bay, on Lake Erie, and not like deep rolling ocean waves. We also see clearly that Perry has caused the British Queen Charlotte and the Detroit to collide by blocking the wind and shooting down a topsail stay. The British ships have been trapped as Perry attains that ultimate goal of battling tall ships, the "cross the T" position.
Davidson allows us to view Perry’s death-defying resurrection from defeat as he suddenly unleashes overwhelming power moments before the entire British fleet begs for mercy and surrenders. Some very astute critics, looking for meaning in small details, conjecture that "…for dramatic purposes, Davidson has raised the position of the American flag, because infrared analysis indicates that the flag had been lower in the under painting"(Beman). Other scholars marvel that the flag position precisely indicates Perry’s secret code signaling to the other American fleet to close in for attack and bring up reinforcements (Dillon).
(Loren Bloom at battleoflakeerieart.com)
KEARSARGE & ALABAMA
The historic June 19, 1864 duel between two American ships off the coast of France (above) resulted in the sinking of the most successful of the Confederate Raiders, a fast screw sloop-of-war, ALABAMA. Blockaded in the port of Cherbourg while making needed repairs, Captain Ralph Semmes notified Captain John A. Winslow, in command of the Union Sloop KEARSARGE, that he would come out to battle. Semmes intended to allow his crew, just slightly outnumbered and outgunned, to fire first at a range of 1500', and then steam close to board with the enemy. KEARSARGE held to 1000' and instead of closing with the Confederate, circled closer to throw devastating broadside attacks. ALABAMA, hampered with old, deteriorating powder from her two-year world cruise against the North’s shipping interests, knew her fate would soon be found at the bottom of the Atlantic. After one hour and ten minutes, and 173 shots fired from KEARSARGE, ALABAMA was lost with 127 men out of 149 rescued. Three sailors onboard the Union ship were injured. This excellent painting is a fitting artistic tribute to the North’s victory by Davidson, and it’s a rare depiction of on-deck action in a 19TH Century naval battle scene. The Union Navy crew has just begun its somber celebration with ALABAMA evidently floundering amid the gray haze of the battles smoke-filled sky. KEARSARGE’s crew mans the 11" Dahlgren smooth-barrel mid-deck, an early application of the large bore guns that would revolutionize Naval Warfare. The men congratulate each other for their gunnery skill and set about to tend to their wounded, a great late depiction of an epic moment of the American Civil War.
Capture of New Orleans by Union Flag Officer David Farragut
First fight between Ironclads
Near Iona Island on the Hudson
Davidson’s remarkable facility with naval illustration proved highly marketable during the Civil War. He was a regular illustrator for both The Century and Harper’s, providing detailed artistic accounts of naval operations and battles. Later in his career, he found equal commercial demand for his depictions of sailing sports. A champion rower, Davidson lived on the Hudson River where he found ample subject matter for his brush. A frequent exhibitor at the National Academy of Design and the Salmagundi Club, Davidson’s life was cut short by a sudden illness at the age of forty-one.
(The Charleston Renaissance Gallery at fada.com)