Constitution & Guerriere
George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), son of a Salem, Massachusetts shipmaster, was an accomplished maritime, landscape, and commercial artist. By the age of 13 he had become a student of Michele Felice Cornè, a premier Neapolitan artist of American maritime art of the day. Ropes soon produced some of the most iconic maritime folk paintings of the time. Few Americans of that era had the wealth or leisure to support the arts, though, and Ropes was compelled to earn money painting signs and coaches after the death of his father. Yet, when he did paint ships, usually for wealthy sea captains and merchants, he did so with the utmost care and attention to detail.
What Ropes depicts here with gem-like clarity is one of the most famous engagements in American naval history. On August 19, 1812, USS Constitution met and defeated HMS Guerriere, a 38-gun British frigate under the command of Captain James Richard Dacres. While relatively inconsequential in overall strategic terms of the outcome of the War of 1812, the stunning victory provided a much needed morale boost for the American public still reeling from the U.S. Army’s surrender of Detroit and other failures along the Canadian border. Constitution‘s success also burnished the reputation of the U.S. Navy, proving that the fledgling force was every bit as professional and competent as Britain’s mighty Royal Navy, the largest navy in the world at the time.
It is no wonder that George Ropes chose this famous fight as the subject of these four remarkable paintings. The fine detail and careful rendering of the ships and the sea, coupled with the bold title underneath, are not just artistic conceits, but a statement of patriotic pride.