ANTONIO NICOLO GASPARO JACOBSEN
The Early Years
Even if Antonio Jacobsen had left us but a few ship portraits from the late 1870’s he would have earned lasting recognition as a talented marine artist. We could count on depictions of live ships on live seas – seas which his early enthusiasm could not keep under control.
Here is an exhibition of works, drawn partly from the artist’s exuberant, creative early years and partly from a later, mature period – but all dating before 1900 – which shows Jacobsen at his best.
Ironically, had Jacobsen produced fewer paintings, regardless of period, he might be more noted as a marine artist today. With incredible energy he created at least 2400 known works (and possibly as many as 6000), more than enough to surfeit those trying to judge his artistry.
But Jacobsen’s paintings deserve better than to be placed end-on-end in monotonous assembly-line fashion. A small, selective exhibition like this avoids such a pitfall, and in the process serves the artist with honor and its viewers with pleasure.
Antonio Jacobsen arrived in New York in 1873, more a musician by profession than an artist. By 1876 he was listed in the New York City Directory as an artist, indicating a quick resolve to pursue this new vocation. New and untried as it apparently was to him, he plunged into it, mastered it, and carried it on with a consuming energy. During all but his last few years Jacobsen enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, which reflected the financial success of his life’s work. As to his artistry, viewers of this exhibition can hardly fail but be impressed.
There are obvious reasons why this exhibition must be a limited one, and we have indicated the virtues of such a showing. The 1900 cut-off date has eliminated work of lesser quality. Missing, for instance, are the retrospective portraits, good and bad, of clipper ships, which he never saw but nonetheless painted for the less-discriminating client. This end date also eliminated most of his paintings on academy board.
But in justice to the artist it need be said that these later paintings, amounting to some half of his total output, are not all poor. Most of his schooner portraits, for instance, date to the years after 1900; and many other works from this century embody real artistic merit.
A showing limited by date and space cannot truly convey the artist’s scope and Jacobsen deserves to be remembered for what he painted as much as for how he painted. We need to stress the wide range of vessel types and sizes which, drawn by the commercial magnetism of the port of New York, paraded together before Jacobsen’s eyes, to be ultimately captured on his canvases. Sail and steam, commercial and naval, large and small, all manner of craft found representation in his work.
His clients – mostly ships’ officers, crewmen and owners – demanded accuracy. And accuracy was what they received. So well, in fact, did he document this parade of ships – and New York’s importance as a port – that he deserves the dual titles of marine historian and marine artist.
Harold S. Sniffen
The Mariners’ Museum
Newport News, Virginia
This essay, about Antonio Jacobsen, was written by the late Harold Sniffen, Curator Emeritus of The Mariners’ Museum, for a similar exhibition that was held at our gallery in 1988.