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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Offering of the Day: The Ship 'John S. McKim' by Noted Marine Artist James Guy Evans

James Guy Evans (American, born circa 1810)
The Ship John S. McKim in three positions off the Rio Grande
30 x 48 1/2 inches
Framed: 35 1/2 x 53 1/2 inches
Oil on canvas
Signed lower right: Evans
Inscribed along the bottom: Steam Ship McKim, off Rio Grande with 500 Mississippi Volunteers August 1846, Built by Thomas Clyde 1844

Provenance: By donation to the Seamen's Church Institute

James Guy Evans was a former Navy sailor and self taught painter active in New Orleans between 1844 and the 1850's. As a maritime artist in that city, he would have been very familiar with the steamship John S. McKim, which made regular trips between New Orleans and ports in Mexico and Texas, principally Galveston.  He was also a likely witness to the vessel's most famous mission, which he depicts in this powerful painting.

The John S. McKim was the first screw driven steamship built for commercial use in the United States. The famous shipbuilder Thomas Clyde of Philadelphia designed her in collaboration with the principal developer of the screw propeller, John Ericsson.  She had principal dimensions of 175 feet LOA x 23.4 ft beam and a 29 ft draft, displacing 376 tons. It is very likely that her namesake was John S. McKim of Baltimore, one of that city's most successful merchants and civic leaders.

At this time, the Navy took an active interest in the controversial question of whether screw propulsion was superior to the paddle wheels that were in widespread use. Enjoying much commercial success, the John S. McKim was critical to proving that such ships were viable alternatives to the sidewheeler.  Evans, a former Marine, would certainly have been very interested in this unique vessel.

The John S. McKim also played a historic role in the Mexican War.

In 1846, General Zachary Taylor and his outnumbered army were holding positions on both sides of the Rio Grande River. Taylor planned to march overland to attack the important Mexican city of Monterey; however, he needed reinforcements.

In anticipation of the conflict, the United States had put out a call for 1,000 volunteers from each state.  More than 17,000 Mississippians answered the call. One thousand of these enthusiastic citizens were formed into the First Mississippi Regiment. Former West Point graduate Jefferson Davis acted as their Colonel, resigning from his post in the U.S. Senate.  He later served as President of the Confederacy.

Davis insisted that his troops be armed with the latest available weapon: the M1841 Rifle, which was more accurate than the smooth bore guns in common use.  Davis' men came to use this firearm so effectively that it became known as the 'Mississippi Rifle.'

In the heat of the summer, Davis and the First Mississippi sailed from New Orleans to the Rio Grande to join Taylor's army. Evans' painting captures the McKim and its martial passengers at the mouth of the river. The ship is steaming at high speed into the wind, its decks crowded with soldiers.  The McKim's modern propulsion system is emphasized by a turbulent wake at the stern of the ship. 

To dramatize the event, Evans also depicts the steamship in two other positions.  To the left in the background, the ship appears without sails, perhaps even at rest.  On the right, the ship is shown running down wind, apparently on its return voyage as its decks are almost void of men.

The First Mississippi Regiment went on to fight valiantly at the battle of Monterey in September, 1846.  It was not until February 1847, however, that the unit gained real immortality at the Battle of Buena Vista. During that fight, the Americans were in danger of being overrun by superior Mexican forces.  Davis rallied his troops with the cry "Stand Fast, Mississippians" and the line held.  The phrase was later adopted by the Regiment as its official motto, and still appears today as the slogan of the unit, now the 155th Infantry Regiment of the Mississippi National Guard.

Evan's painting skillfully captures a truly important ship engaged in a historic event.  The scene is rendered with the artist's customary vigorous brushstrokes, bold color palate, and careful attention to nautical detail.  The inscription within the black border along the bottom of the picture is also typical of his work, and may derive from his familiarity with a similar custom among Mediterranean marine artists.  

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