The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, December 17, 1994            TAG: 9412170036
TYPE: Column 
SOURCE: Larry Maddry 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  113 lines


UNTIL RECENTLY, maritime artist Antonio Jacobsen was neither a household word nor well-known to sailors outside New York.

True, he was known to dealers and collectors of maritime art. That was understandable - the Danish-born American holds the distinction of being the most prolific of marine artists.

Jacobsen documented thousands of sail and steam vessels that frequented New York Harbor between 1873 and 1919. It is believed that he painted more than 6,000 portraits during the period when sailing ships were converting to steam, an exciting era for ship builders and sailors.

Yet, when great painters of ships and water were mentioned, Jacobsen's name was rarely uttered. And, when it was, Jacobsen's art was usually brushed aside as inferior to the works of Winslow Homer, JMW Turner or Fitzhugh Lane.

A pair of recent events may forever alter the view of Jacobsen and raise him in the estimation of both the public and scholars as a nonpareil. In September, the Mariners' Museum in Newport News published the definitive biography on the artist: ``Antonio Jacobsen's Painted Ships on Painted Oceans'' by Harold S. Sniffen. The biography, by the museum's curator emeritus, contains nearly 100 of the artist's ship portraits, each in color.

To coincide with the publication of Jacobsen's biography, an exhibition of about 80 of his oil paintings, as well as pages from his sketchbooks, historic photographs, and personal items are on display at the Mariners' Museum through February 19, 1995.

Biographer Sniffen spent the past 20 years gathering material for the book and selected the works to be displayed, drawing from the museum's collection of the artist's paintings - the largest Jacobsen collection in the world - and both institutions and private collections.

Sniffen believes that Jacobsen - ``whose works were usually sold for about $5 each'' - was a gifted artist who has no peer as a ship portraitist.

``He is best known for his paintings of steamers and tugs,'' Sniffen said. `But we believe this exhibition will change that stereotype by revealing the amazing variety of his work.''

A stroll through the museum gallery reveals the work of a man with extraordinary talent and range. Characteristics of his style are his use of the translucent wave broken by a plunging ship's bow; his darkened treatment of waves and sky astern ships; realistic seas; extreme bowlift; correct flag etiquette; and unobtrusive smoke. The exhibited ship portraits range from harbor scenes to disasters at sea.

Jacobsen was the son of a Danish violin maker. He sailed to New York from Copenhagen in 1873 - at the age of 22 - with the ability to be a musician but the desire to become a ship portraitist.

His son said Jacobsen's career as an artist began when he was offered a job decorating safes by a representative of a safe company who had seen the artist sketching ships passing Battery Park in New York City. Soon thereafter, Jacobsen was commissioned to paint a ship on a safe, and his reputation as a young man who painted ships well spread rapidly around the waterfront. As his skill increased, he did ship portraits for brokers and owners, shipping companies, captains and crew members. During his most prosperous years, he painted portraits for the largest passenger and cargo lines of his day.

His works include an amazing variety of vessels including tugs, pilot schooners, steam and sail yachts, clipper ships, lightships, ferries and naval vessels.

Most of Jacobsen's knowledge of ships was gained by observing the vessels while they were in port. Sniffen said Jacobsen nearly always sketched vessels while they were tied to piers. Pages from his sketchbooks can be seen in the museum exhibition, in some instances, beside the ship's portrait.

``He was a good sketcher and had systems of indicating proportions so that it was possible to locate the position of any part of a ship's superstructure,'' Sniffen said.

Jacobsen's clients - until his later years - were men who knew the sea and the ships rendered by the artist down to the most minute detail. And it is in the minute detail that Jacobsen so often distinguished himself. A good example is a portrait of the pilot schooner Ambrose Snow at Sandy Hook station in New York in which each seam of the vessel's canvas sails is clearly visible.

Sniffen cited Jacobsen's portrait of the ship Majestic as another example of his accuracy. ``He showed the details of how plates were put on the side of steel ship, the light striking the upper edge of the plate and a shadow on the plate's bottom edge,'' he noted. The Majestic shows the transfer of a pilot from a rowboat beside the ship. The pilot can be seen climbing the rope ladder on the side of the vessel with the white pilot boat in the foreground.

The Hekla would have been of special interest to the artist because it showed a Danish passenger line vessel that operated between Copenhagen in New York. It is one of the few portraits by Jacobsen that showed the starboard side of a vessel.

Other notable paintings in the exhibition include Yachts Racing, a stunning contest between straining schooners and an immense (4-by-8 foot) painting of the transatlantic liner City of New York.

Jacobsen visited Hampton Roads, briefly, in 1907. His sketchbooks contain drawings of many Virginia steamboats and depict a carfloat (float for railway cars), which was sketched in Norfolk at the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad Company pier. The company floated railway cars to Cape Charles where they were rolled to New York via Philadelphia.

And the exhibition contains a magnificent painting of the Wyanoke - a vessel of the Old Dominion Line that carried passengers and ships between New York and Virginia until it sank in 1896 off Newport News.

Sniffen views his subject as both an artist and a historian.

``Jacobsen recorded a great deal,'' Sniffen said. ``Enough to leave behind a literal picture of his era. In that sense, he was truly a historian of importance.''

Few, if any, acquainted with either the biography or the current exhibition of Jacobsen's works will disagree. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo by Richard L. Dunston, Staff

Antonio Jacobsen's portrait of the Majestic shows the artist's

attention to detail.

Photo by RICHARD L. DUNSTON, Staff

Harold Sniffen, curator emeritus of the Mariners' Museum, stands in

front of Antonio Jacobsen's City of New York painting.

by CNB