USS Constitution‘s storied career has been depicted by artists for over three centuries. Most artistic images of “Old Ironsides” reflect her moments in battle, whether the bombardment of Tripoli in the first Barbary War or her victories against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. There is, however, a small but growing collection of artwork portraying Constitution when she has not been at her heroic best, but when she was being built, repaired, or restored.
The paintings, sketches, illustrations, and photographs shown here are arranged chronologically, according to the moment depicted in Constitution‘s history. We naturally begin with the creation of the frigate and her launch. While there are no eighteenth century paintings or sketches of Constitution‘s construction, twentieth and twenty-first century artists have attempted to show the frigate’s building and Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End.
The most recent artwork happens to depict the very beginning of Constitution‘s construction at Hartt’s Shipyard in 1795. In 2015, British illustrator Stephen Biesty was commissioned by the USS Constitution Museum to develop a series of drawings to use in an animated film for the Forest to Frigate exhibit. The illustration below shows one section of framing during Constitution‘s construction. Note the ship’s keel resting on blocks at the bottom of the building ways, the v-shaped floor timber rising up off the keel, the multiple sections that make up the individual frame, and the rib-like structure in the center forming the transom. Biesty’s detailed drawings came to fruition because of exhaustive research by Matthew Brenckle, the USS Constitution Museum’s Research Historian. The watercolor and ink drawings represent the best understanding at this time of how Constitution was constructed.
Cheslie D’Andrea (1913-1999) trained as a magazine illustrator and also served as a combat artist during World War II. In the early-to-mid 1990s, he was the USS Constitution Museum’s artist-in-residence, with the mission to create scenes in Constitution‘s history that had not been previously depicted. D’Andrea represented the ship’s construction at Hartt’s Shipyard from a “gull’s eye view,” rendering Boston’s sloping landscape and the newly constructed State House on Beacon Hill. The tightly packed scene succinctly captures the drama of the enormous warship that had slowly risen above the North End skyline. Constitution‘s hull is the height of a four-story building and, by the time she was launched, she towered over all the buildings with the exception of the church steeples.
Charles Hoffbauer (1875-1957), was a Paris-born artist who arrived in the United States in 1909 and eventually settled in Hollywood, California. In July 1940, he was hired by the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company of Boston to paint eight murals for the lobby of its new building on Boylston Street in the Back Bay. The murals depicted Boston area history from the 1620s to 1798 and included the launching of USS Constitution in 1797. New England Life’s president from 1865 to 1908, Benjamin Stevens, was Constitution‘s ship’s clerk during her 1844 – 1846 World Cruise. His connection to the ship likely had a significant influence on the decision to include “Old Ironsides” in the lobby murals decades later. Hoffbauer painted the murals in Hollywood, but he did visit Boston for several months to conduct research.
The mural correctly shows Constitution with her original Hercules figurehead on her bow, the open waist in the center of the upper bulwarks, her copper-sheathed lower hull, and that she was launched without her masts (a common inaccuracy in other 20th century launch paintings). Hoffbauer scores fairly high marks on his rendering of Constitution. However, his costuming of his witnesses to the launch appears to owe more to Hollywood’s depiction of history than to costume historians. But, as the Los Angeles Times noted after the murals were displayed in May 1942, “[Hoffbauer], who so loves history, has managed to present it, not as a series of theatrical events, but as something alive and breathing today” [“Boston art painted here”. (May 4, 1942). Los Angeles Times, p. A2.]. The fancifully dressed crowd in the painting’s foreground certainly capture the spirit of excitement and celebration when Constitution, on her third attempt, successfully launched on October 21, 1797 into Boston Harbor.
Paul Garnett is a self-taught artist and native of Massachusetts. He has painted several different images of “Old Ironsides,” but a recent rendering shows the moment on October 21, 1797, when Constitution successfully entered “her element.” Colonel George Claghorn, Constitution‘s naval constructor had printed a broadside on September 18, two days before the first launch attempt. Claghorn’s broadside simultaneously invited Bostonians to attend the launch and warned them of possible dangers:
“It is suggested, as the tide will be full, that it would be necessary to the safety of spectators, particularly women and children, that they do not approach in crowds to near the margin of the contiguous wharves, as the sudden entrance of so large a body as the Frigate, will occasion an instantaneous swell of the water, the height of which cannot be easily calculated, and against which, therefore, the discretion of the people ought amply to guard.” [Massachusetts Historical Society Collection]
Constitution, which had towered over the North End waterfront for nearly three years, was truly awesome in her size. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Claghorn believed the frigate’s body, upon entering Boston Harbor, would set up a tidal wave and wash people off nearby wharves!
Garnett’s painting, titled “Launching Constitution, Hartt’s Yard – Boston – October 21, 1797,” accurately shows that such a “large body as the Frigate” did not create a tidal wave or endanger those who saw the final, successful launch. His painting highlights several characteristics of her structure and decorations that are based on the two earliest known paintings of the ship by Michele Felice Cornè. Constitution’s spar deck forward did not have solid bulwarks when first built, but carried open rails and stanchions. The black and white hull colors so familiar today are not the original colors. Instead, the ship had a yellow ochre gun stripe which was much more characteristic of European navies. The eight windows across the stern, at the captain’s cabin, is based on Cornè’s ca. 1805 painting, “Bombardment of Tripoli.” By the War of 1812, current research indicates that Constitution‘s stern had been changed to six windows at the cabin level.
Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), a native of Wakefield, Massachusetts and a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is best known for his sporting and hunting scenes. However, late in his life, Ripley executed numerous watercolor sketches for the Paul Revere Life Insurance Co. depicting important moments in Revere’s life.
One such sketch illustrates the heaving down and recoppering of Constitution‘s lower starboard hull in late June 1803. Ripley was not trained as a marine artist as is evident in this painting. He correctly depicts Constitution with her upper masts and yards removed, but inaccurately shows the gunport doors open when they would have been closed and tightly sealed. Heaving down a vessel this size was a difficult and dangerous task not only to the vessel itself, but to the shipyard workers toiling off the staging. Ripley’s painting, however, has an air of calm despite the bustle of activity surrounding the ship. And, contrary to how it is shown here, Constitution‘s copper sheathing is actually laid stern to bow from the keel up to the waterline. In the foreground, Paul Revere, whose rolling mill supplied the copper in 1803, is shown seated, speaking to Commodore Edward Preble and his wife, Mary. Like Hoffbauer, Ripley also had a fanciful take on historic clothing, showing perhaps the influence of the Colonial Revival movement during his early years of study.
An anonymously engraved print of Constitution appeared in Volume I of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, printed in 1835. This is the first contemporary nineteenth-century illustration of the ship in our selection of artwork and is more in the realm of reportage than artistic interpretation of an event. In this print, Constitution, with the first Andrew Jackson figurehead on her bow, is shown moored off the Charlestown Navy Yard in June 1834, after having spent one year in dry dock. The magazine article accompanying the image recapitulates Constitution‘s victorious battle history and concludes with the following:
“[Constitution] was…placed in ordinary at the Navy Yard, Charlestown, where she lay until June 24th, 1833, when she was taken into the Dry Dock, which had been just completed–amid the roar of cannons and the huzzas of the multitude.
In the Dry Dock she received a thorough repair; and on the 21st of June, 1834, was taken out–a beautiful hull, stronger if possible than when she first dipped her keel in the ocean’s waves, and as ready to meet the foe, as when she lay before the batteries of Tripoli, hurling her thunder and her balls of death, against the enemies of freedom and of man.
The [engraved print] is a true representation of the Constitution, as she was moored, between the United States 74’s Columbus and Independence…
Well may we value the relics of this old favorite of the nation and of the navy; which, in the forms of canes, snuff-boxes and ornaments of various kinds, are now scattered far and wide in every land…”
Even in a stripped down state exhibiting her live oak skeleton, Constitution was newsworthy. Charles Mente, (1857-1933), an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, captured the aged frigate as she sat in a sectional dock at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the spring of 1875. Mente’s illustration provides the viewer with a sense of scale by including three figures at the base of the dock. He also chose a slightly elevated vantage point so that the viewer gains a full perspective of the scene. Interestingly, the illustration’s caption states that Mente’s image is based on a photograph. We just so happen to have a similar photograph, shown below, though we cannot confirm that this is the exact photograph from which Mente worked.
This ca. 1875 photograph, while nearly identical to Mente’s illustration, provides a closer and lower view of the ship in the sectional dock. The most remarkable aspect of both the illustration and the photograph is that the viewer can easily see Constitution‘s “ironsides,” that is, the dense, closely spaced live oak framing. This rare sight of Constitution‘s frames is likely what inspired Charles Mente to document this moment in the ship’s history.
Receiving Ship: 1882-1897
This USN Naval Constructor’s plan, dated June 1883, of USS Constitution is one example of a literal rendering of the ship’s configuration at the end of her long Navy career. After Constitution‘s last sail in the autumn of 1881, she was stripped of all valuable equipment and eventually towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, there to be turned into a receiving ship. While some may consider Constitution‘s years at Portsmouth to be the nadir of her existence, artists, in fact, came to the shores of the Piscataqua River between 1883 and 1897 to capture her in her faded glory.
George Savary Wasson (1855-1932), a native of Groveland, Massachusetts, was an artist who specialized in marine paintings. After settling in Kittery Point, Maine near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Wasson, like so many other artists, was attracted to the ships and architecture of the waterfront. He completed this small oil painting of Constitution in 1893, possibly as a memento to sell to the burgeoning tourist population.
Constitution spent her receiving ship career moored off a large pier at Portsmouth. The pier was noted for the Santee shiphouse, an enormous building where the frigate Santee‘s keel was laid down in 1820. The shiphouse appears in the painting just behind Constitution. Although Wasson’s perspective of “Old Ironsides” is slightly warped and the cutwater is out of scale, he has rendered other details of the ship fairly accurately. Note the two smoke stacks for stoves, the lightweight sailing rig, and the porch built above the stern just below the roofline.
Hendricks A. Hallett (1847-1921), a Charlestown, Massachusetts artist, specialized in marine and historical paintings. This bucolic watercolor captures a wide perspective of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard waterfront, with “Old Ironsides” floating in the center background. Hallett deliberately focused the viewer’s eye on Constitution by angling the Piscataqua River gundalow‘s single sail toward the ship. He also silhouetted Constitution‘s buff-colored hull against the bright Santee ship house directly behind.
When purchased in 2001, this painting was the first color artwork in the USS Constitution Museum’s collection to depict Constitution as a receiving ship. Hallett’s careful and accurate choice of colors confirmed for the museum staff that the ship had been painted a buff color at that time and not “battleship gray” as many had previously assumed.Join us next time as we share artistic depictions of USS Constitution‘s restorations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including a painting of the ship’s first true restoration in 1906-1907. View Part II here.
– M. M. Desy & K. Monea