The Newcomb Art Gallery, tucked inside the Tulane campus off of Willow Street, currently has on view a worthwhile exhibition of nineteenth and twentieth century American marine paintings from the private collection of Arthur J. Phelan. The collection surveys the prominent American painters of the last two centuries including William Trost Richards, Guy Wiggins, Arthur Meltzer, Alfred Thompson Bricker, William Merritt Chase, and Reginald Marsh. William Wheeler’s poignant painting “Great Lakes Marine Disaster” from 1860 depicts passengers huddled quietly together on lifeboats as they watch their ship burn by the moonlight was the first marine painting Phelan added to his collection of American art.
Several of the artists in the exhibition had ties to the New Orleans and the South most notably Charles McIIhenny, whose work is represented here by the dramatic depiction of a steamboat being guided at night by hand held torches as it moves precariously down the Mississippi River. There is a small yet charming watercolor by Paul Sawyier of the Kentucky River at dusk, and the painting “A Glimpse of Connecticut” is by Wilson Irvine, who as a visitor painted the historic sights of New Orleans. Paintings by George Harvey and John White Allen focused on the area just north along the Mississippi River.
Truly a treat is the addition of the monumental Louisiana marine painting, “Giant Steamboats on the Levee at New Orleans” by Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron painted in 1853. The painting, a gift of D.H. Holmes Department Store, is now in Tulane University’s art collection. Debuting at Paris’ First Universalle in 1855 with its appropriate French title “Bateaux a Vapeur Geants,” the painting shows the grand steamboats lining up along the New Orleans levee. This busy and lively painting has two cotton brokers in discussion as the workers unload barrels of sugar and bales of cotton, a fruit vendor nearby sells bananas and pineapples from beside his small boat. To further enhance its importance and the luminous quality of the sun setting over the dock and city, the painting has been placed alone in a darkened gallery.
Born in Caudebec-en-Caux, France in 1801, Sebron studied and worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Daguerre, who would introduce photography to the world in 1839, was a painter who created popular traveling dioramas for the public. In 1847, Sebron traveled to America, settling in New Orleans from 1852 to 1854. Sebron captures the bustle of the important port to New Orleans, which by this time was second only to that of New York City.
To complement the exhibition in the Angela Gregory Gallery, there is a delightful display of marine themed paintings and Newcomb pottery by local artists including the brothers William and Ellsworth Woodward, Alexander John Drysdale and Will Henry Stevens. A particularly intriguing Newcomb vase by Alice Raymond Scudder shows the all too familiar view of a flood scene with roof tops peaking up from the blue water.