What is this?
Constitution and Guerriere, a series of four paintings by George Ropes, Jr.
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), son of a Salem shipmaster, was an accomplished maritime, landscape, and commercial artist. By the age of 13 he became the student of Michele Felice Cornè, the premiere American maritime artist of the day, and had soon produced some of the most iconic pieces of maritime folk art so admired by collectors today. But few Americans of that era had the wealth or the leisure to support the arts to any extent, and, after the death of his father, Ropes was forced to turn to coach and sign painting to make ends meet. 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 has depicted here with gem-like clarity is one of the most famous engagements in American naval history. On August 19, 1812,Constitution met and defeated in a short battle HMS Guerriere, a 38-gun frigate under the command of Captain James Richard Dacres. While relatively inconsequential in strategic terms, the stunning victory provided a much needed morale boost for the American public, still reeling from the loss of Detroit and other failures along the northern border. Constitution‘s success also burnished the reputation not just of her officers, but of the navy as a whole, proving that the fledgling force was every bit as professional and competent as Britain’s mighty Royal Navy.
It is no wonder then that George Ropes chose this famous fight as the subject of his four remarkable paintings. The fine detail and careful rendering of the ships and the sea, coupled with the bold title underneath, were not just artistic conceits, but a statement of patriotic pride. Thanks to the generous contributions of more than 120 donors, the USS Constitution Museum is able to share these images with the American public.
For further reading, see Kathleen Luhrs, “Museum accessions: Old Ironsides.” The Magazine Antiques (August 2008).