Painters have a fascination with the ocean. Monet’s “La Terasse de St.-Adresse”, Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”, and Turner’s “The Fighting Temerarie” all illustrate the sea’s crashing waves, ships tossing about, and the serenity of the water. Some paintings are of war, and the combination of these two themes create masterpieces. This painting, by Thomas Chambers, is “Capture of H.B.M Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Firgate United States, October 25, 1812.” It is time to explore both the art and the history behind Chambers’ piece.
The painting is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. on a wall in the second floor corridor. Painted in 1852, the image shows a duel between HMS Macedonian and the USS United States, early in the War of 1812. First we must understand the background to the piece. The War of 1812 began on the seas as the US and Britain became involved in a series of disputes over impressment. The United States’ claims to parts of Canada and the Franco-American sympathies helped turn the tide and war was declared in 1812. The USS United States was the first American frigate ever built, ordered in March of 1794. The ship’s captain, Stephen Decatur, allegedly made a bet with the commander of the Macedonian, John Carden, in Norfolk, Virginia. If the two were to meet in battle, Carden owed Decatur his beaver-felt hat. The United States was sent to patrol North Africa where it came into contact with the Macedonian off the Azores.
USS United States had a strong advantage over HMSMacedonian in its firepower. Most of the United States’ guns were 24-pounders, while HMS Macedonian was equipped with primarily 18-pounders. The United States also had six more guns and was a larger, more-powerful ship. The United States‘ broadsides riddled the British frigate at a long range and demasted the ship. Carden surrendered his ship after suffering some 100 casualties. The Macedonian was the first British ship to be bested by an American ship and the first to be returned to an American port (Newport, Rhode Island). HMS Macedonian was recommissioned as USS Macedonian and served until 1824.
The close-up above shows Capt. John Carden of HMS Macedonian announcing his surrender to the United States with a loudhailer as the American ship fires a broadside into the Macedonian‘s hull. The sails next to him are covered in holes from the shot. It is important to note the damages around the ship as the USS United States fired about seventy broadsides. Chambers’ painting shows the ship in a much better state than it would have been. Many of the crew on both side are on deck, but on the United States, they would have been below decks firing the broadside illustrated.
The whisps of smoke are my favourite part of this painting. Think how difficult it is to paint smoke and even show the wooden hull behind it. The American crew cheers from the deck and further to the right stands Decatur, responding to Carden over the roar of the cannon. Notice how the American ship is in the light of victory. Chambers was born in England, but moved to the United States where he would paint this in 1852. It is interesting to see where his loyalties lie.
While this painting is not as famous as “The Coronation of Napoleon” which I previously reviewed , it is still a very intriguing painting as it shows the different aspects of naval combat and the differences between each nation’s ships in one of the first naval engagements of the War of 1812.