Art of discovery: seeing the sea

Artist/crewman George Davidson and the visual chronicle of Robert Gray's exploration of the Northwest

Growing up near the water in the Pacific Northwest, I had a fascination with the sea. It was mostly literary and shorebound: I loved the rocky reaches and cold rainswept beaches of northern Puget Sound, which on an untamed day seemed like the cauldrons of creation. When you have an intimate connection with a saltwater shore, when you feel the push and pull of ocean transforming the rhythm of your pulse, you begin to understand – to feel more than think, really – how much vaster is the water than the land, and how it might engulf us given half the chance. Strangely, the feeling is more enthralling than frightening, at least for me.

"Winter Quarters," George Davidson, Columbia River Maritime Museum

“Winter Quarters,” George Davidson, Columbia River Maritime Museum

As a young man my father had been a merchant marine up and down the western coasts of the American continents, and my mother’s side of the family included a long line of Seamans from Long Island, New York, at a time when the surname described the family occupation. I grew up with boys from fishing families who graduated from high school and crewed in Washington and Oregon and Alaska waters, hoping eventually to own their own boats.

Yet even as a child I knew I’d never be a sailor. My interests and abilities lay elsewhere, and my stomach, which is not fond of swells, sealed the deal. But my boyhood awe at the power of the sea, stoked by the likes of the cabin boy Jim Hawkins and the survivor Ishmael and the wanderer Odysseus, remains. So on a short trip last week to Astoria, where the Columbia crashes into the great wall of the Pacific, I made sure to spend some time at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. And as usual when I spend time in almost any museum, I made a few happy finds:

  • The emergency floats that shark fishermen fashioned during wartime, when ordinary supplies were scarce, out of empty beer bottles. (“Party Size,” the labels read. “Acme Beer.”)
  • A simple but extraordinarily effective montage, in dominating reds, of labels from the millions of cans of salmon and other seafood that once rushed off the conveyer belts of Astoria’s dozens of canneries, shut down since giant ships took over the packaging of the catch in addition to the harvesting.
  • Several extraordinary old maps, including Abraham Ortelius’s “Maris Pacifici,” the first printed map devoted to the Pacific Ocean, published in Antwerp in 1589. It’s a fascinating blend of fact and fiction, gorgeously inked and beautifully detailed and wildly speculative about the shape and nature of places not yet wholly charted: as much a map of the imagination as of the globe.

And I discovered the watercolors of George Davidson, a crewman who also served as ship’s artist on the Columbia Rediviva, Captain Robert Gray’s fur-trade merchant ship that explored the Northwest coast in the late 1780s (when it became the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe) and again in the 1790s. Despite the Columbia’s relatively brief stays in Northwest waters, its captain made a distinctive mark here, at least on the region’s maps.

""Columbia in a Squall," George Davidson, 1793, Oregon Historical Society

George Davidson, 1793, Oregon Historical Society

Captain Gray is the Gray of Gray’s Harbor, Washington, among several other “Gray” names along the coast and inland. In 1792 the Columbia crossed the bar and entered what we now know as the Columbia River, which he named, presumptively, for his ship. On May 11 of that year the Columbia Redeviva entered the great Columbia and sailed upriver past the point that in 1811 would become the settlement that grew into Astoria, the oldest American town west of the Mississippi. That does not count, of course, Spanish and Russian and especially native settlements: after all, an estimated 50 million to 100 million people populated the Americas before 1492, and the Columbia River was lined with bustling villages.

Far less is known about Davidson, the sailor whose sketches and watercolors are closer to reportage than those fanciful 16th century maps but still infused with imaginative flair. Like Ishmael on the Pequod, he seems to have been partly a participant but more importantly an observer and recorder. The maritime museum displays four of his naïve but charming watercolors, which are sure of hand and very much in the tradition of American folk painters of the time. They record scenes from the Columbia’s second, 1790s voyage: a gorgeous rendition of the ship leaning into a storm; a scene of the ship being “atackted” by native war canoes in the Juan de Fuca Straits; a rendering of the ship at night being “Surprised by the Natives of Chicklezet”; and a depiction of the expedition’s winter quarters on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Gray was a hard man, and the “atacks” of the natives should be seen in the light of his deeds: ordering an empty but important Nootka village destroyed over a possibly imagined slight; instigating the killing or maiming of groups of 7, 20, and again 25 natives in various skirmishes, in at least one of them then making off with his victims’ fur pelts. It was musket diplomacy, and it was dauntingly effective.

"The Sea of Ice," Caspar David Friederich, 1823-24, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg

“The Sea of Ice,” Caspar David Friederich, 1823-24, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg

Over the centuries many great painters have taken on the subject of the sea. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, Willem van de Velde and his like-named son created astonishing scenes of ships and sea battles. The century immediately following Gray’s voyage was itself a golden age for sea paintings: John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer (who overlapped into the 20th century) and, with his magnificently forbidding ice floes, the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Artistically, Davidson’s watercolors can’t begin to match the quality of such masters. Yet his paintings are undeniably vivid and appealing, exaggerated in a dreamy way and suffused with a sense of wonder: they’re homespun and somehow transcendent at once. More importantly, they’re a record – biased and narrow in their viewpoint, but a record nonetheless – of this place in another time, recorded honestly according to his limited vantage and with something a little extra: a flair, a personality, a panache. I don’t want to oversell them. They are what they are. But I very much like what they are.

What happened to Davidson? I don’t know. The bare facts undoubtedly are available somewhere in the records, although what the records have to reveal surely can give only fleeting hints about what he thought and felt and believed and, beyond his artwork that survives him, even did. I find it somehow important that, whatever else his tasks were on the Columbia, his captain felt it was important that he spend at least part of his time creating a visual record of the voyage. Gray may have thought he was simply ordering the keeping of a visual log. In fact, he was also patronizing art.

Gray died in 1806, at age 51, possibly of yellow fever. Davidson, of whom we know so much less, died in 1800, aged just 31 or 32. A short life, lost in the tides of adventure.

"Seascape Study with Rain Cloud," John Constable, 1827, oil on paper, Royal Academy of Arts, London

“Seascape Study with Rain Cloud,” John Constable, 1827, oil on paper, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Later I went to the site of the old Fort Stevens, near Hammond a little to the south and west along the coast, which was once a bustling military-defense site and is now mostly a gutted homage to the price that war exerts on even unimportant places, and to the men and women who responded, often bravely, to its demands. At the top of a mound in what is now a state park my wife and I sat on some bleachers overlooking a sloping meadow that soon would become the playing field for a Civil War reenactment.

Then we drove on to a little parking lot, swept with sand, and walked over a grassy promontory to a broad beach. There, surrounded by curious beachwalkers, lay the remains of the Peter Iredale, a cargo ship bound from Mexico to Portland that ran aground in a storm on October 25, 1906, teetered a while, then sighed and gave up the ghost. Astonishingly, no one was killed, even as its rigging tumbled down. The Peter Iredale wasn’t an important ship, but it became an important landmark on the Oregon coast, a vision of the impassive mercilessness of the ocean and of a kind of grand human futility. Each year its remains become less and less visible. Like Ozymandias, it is sinking slowly in the sand.

The Peter Iredale, 107 years later: skeleton of the past

The Peter Iredale, 107 years later: skeleton of the past

 

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