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The Battle of Lake Erie, 1885-1887 Oil on Canvas, Framed : 54” x 102”
SLR: J.O. Davidson/ N.Y.1887, On Loan to the Erie Maritime Museum
Owner: Maritime Collectors
Photo ©1993 Maritime Collectors

Viewing Julian O. Davidson's eight foot wide painting, a museum docent might begin by explaining that three major maritime schools of art –- Dutch, English, and American -- come together seamlessly. John Wilmerding, prominent American marine curator, describes four elements as being typical of the Dutch marine school of painting

  1. An overall pyramidal composition of ships
  2. A low horizon line
  3. Attention to atmospheric conditions
  4. The rendering of water in the foreground.

Next, your attention might be directed to the figurative scenes within the composition: redcoats dying in rowboats, sailors climbing the rigging, sharpshooters firing from stations in the sails. Wilmerding ascribes the inclusion of these scenes to the influence of the English marine school. Finally, we sense that surrounding these harsh scenes of war is a profound understanding of the relationship that exists between people and nature, which is characteristic of the American Hudson River school of painters.  

Identifying the fleet, we note the central placement of the US Brig Niagara whose topsail forms the apex of the pyramidal composition. With the nautical eye of an experienced sailor, Davidson renders all of the navigational specifics with extreme accuracy. We see the sunshine on the sails, correctly indicating that the time is around 2:30 pm; the wind is accurately portrayed as coming from the southeast. 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, 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.

Detail: U.S. Brig Niagara.                     Click Image to Enlarge
Photo ©1993 Maritime Collectors
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).

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It still is not known how Davidson was able to research and paint the Niagara in 1884-87 with such detail and complexity, given the fact that due to rotting timber and lack of funds, the brig had been scuttled in Misery Bay in 1820 and was not raised until 1913. What is known is that Davidson was himself an excellent sailor and that his naval experience, coupled with long years of prodigious research, infuses his masterful work with unmatched authority. Davidson memorializes the proud moment in our nation’s history when a brilliant and brave 28-year old leader, in command of large sailing ships, interacted with wind, water, men and ammunition to change the course of America’s history.

Davidson completed an impressive series of large paintings depicting the major naval battles in the War of 1812 including The United States Frigate and Macedonian; Privateer Dolphin captures HMS Hebe and her Consort; USS Constitution Escaping the British; Capture of British Ship Guerriere by US frigate Constitution; and The Battle of Lake Champlain. Of this series, Perry’s Victory in the Battle of Lake Erie stands out as Davidson’s  masterpiece.

Next: Comparison to the Thomas Birch painting of the battle.
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Bibliography: As Reference On Wikipedia

Beman, L.S. Julian O. Davidson (1853-1894): American Marine Artist.  New City, NY: Historical Society of Rockland County. 1986.

Dillon, R. We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry: Wilderness Commodore. NY: McGraw Hill. 1978.

Ernst, R.E. Map of the Battle of Lake Erie.  Lakeside, Ohio. 1972.

Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.  NY: Christies, Manson, and Woods International, Inc. 1992.

Lossing, B. Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812.  NY: 1868, pp.524-527.  Quoted in Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.  NY: Christies, Manson and Woods International, Inc. 1992.

“Niagara.” Pamphlet published by the Flagship Niagara, Erie, Pennsylvania. 1990.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. United States Brig Niagara Restoration. 1988.

Rosenberg, M. The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie: 1812 – 1813. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 1997.

Seitz, R. and B. Pennsylvania’s Historic Places. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 1989.

Vaillant, J. The Golden Spruce. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.

Wilmerding, J. American Marine Painting, Second Edition.  NY: Harry Abrams. 1987.

Log of the Battle of Lake Erie

Perry's Luck

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