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George Ropes Jr gouache paintings(4), The Constitution and Guerriere Sighting, Firing, Dismasted, and Burning; image credit on full record.

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Ropes, George Jr; Gouache Paintings (4), signed 1813, The Constitution Frigate & HMS Guerriere in Combat, 19 inch.

A set of four early 19th century gouache on paper paintings by George Ropes Jr. (American, 1788 to 1819), The Constitution and Guerriere Sighting Each Other; The Constitution and Guerriere Firing on Each Other; The Constitution and Guerriere Dismasted; The Constitution and Guerriere Burning. The first painting, 'Sighting' is signed, G. Ropes, Salem, 1813. lower right.

Note: The U.S. Frigate Constitution left Boston, Massachusetts, on 2 August 1812, bound for a raiding cruise off Nova Scotia, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland. Her Commanding Officer, Isaac Hull, was eager to find and fight one of the several Royal Navy frigates then active off North America, an on 18 August an American privateer informed him that one might be found further south. The next afternoon, some 400 miles southeast of the British base at Halifax, a sail was sighted that turned out to be HMS Guerriere, one of the frigates that had fruitlessly pursued Constitution off New York a month earlier.

Guerriere's Captain, James R. Dacres, was also spoiling for a fight. Despite his ship's disadvantages in number and size of guns, and number of crewmen, the long British tradition of victory in ship-to-ship combat against European enemies provided reasonable grounds for Dacres' aggressive optimism. As Constitution approached on this windy, cloudy day, Guerriere began firing alternating broadsides that produced few hits and little damage. Constitution's return fire, limited to a few guns mounted forward, was also ineffective, but this changed markedly as the two ships drew alongside at about six in the evening of 19 August 1812.

A quarter-hour of intense gunnery by Constitution, delivered with much superior accuracy, battered Guerriere in the hull and masts. The British frigate's mizzenmast fell over the side, crippling her ability to maneuver. Constitution then moved ahead to rake Guerriere, whose bowspirit caught in the American's mizzen rigging. Firing continued while the two ships were thus tangled, and both sides prepared boarding parties. Marksmen in the mast tops blazed away at exposed personnel, with deadly effect. Many officers and men were thus killed, including Constitution's Marine lieutenant. Others, Captain Dacres among them, were wounded. As the ships separated, Guerriere 's foremast collapsed, pulling down the mainmast with it. She was now a "defenseless hulk", and surrendered at 7 PM, when casualties were more than five times those of the Americans, and Guerriere was beyond saving. Her surviving crewmen were taken off the next day, she was set afire and soon blew up. Constitution then returned to Boston with her prisoners, arriving on 30 August.

This battle, the first of several U.S. Navy victories in ship-to-ship contests, encouraged Americans and chagrined the British. Despite the rational excuse that Royal Navy frigates were not as large and powerful as their American counterparts, the real causes of these outcomes were inspired seamanship and vastly better gunnery. For the rest of the 19th Century, long after the War of 1812 was over, America's Navy was credited with an effectiveness that went well beyond its usually modest size.

Excerpted from Department of Navy, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

The words to an 1850s song The Old Constitution read, "Ride on in they majesty, Neptune owns the power. (But) thy voice of thunder shook his throne, and made bold tyrants cower." The ship Constitution is an American icon to which we have paid continuous homage. Her 1812 naval victory, the capture of the English Guerriere, can be said to have bolstered our chances of surviving as a nation. As a symbol of American pluck, although she was a wooden ship, a British sailor was heard during the engagement, to shout, "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron." It was the first time that an English frigate had struck its flag to an American.

Contemporary artists reproduced her image, Michel Felice Corne (1751 to 1845) among them. Another, Thomas Birch (1779 to 1851) left some 30 painting of the engagement. Many painters since then attempted to capture her magic. Blue transfer pottery carried the battle scene. Numberless engravings did the same. Currier & Ives found for her a welcome market. Even English and French artists contributed. When it was reported that she was scheduled to be destroyed she was saved by the scornful Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1885 poem "Old Ironsides, Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!"

In some measure we are indebted to Corne and to one of his students, for the memory that endures. It was Corn? who took one of the nine children of the ship master George Ropes, the one who could neither hear nor speak, the one who was barely 13 years old, the boy George Ropes, and made of him an artist.

Most Ropes paintings, which manifest a clear debt to Corne are concerned with maritime subjects, the earliest by the boy then 17, an oil on canvas of the ship Friendship of Salem, 1805. His characteristic interest in America and the sea are exemplified by the New-York Historical Society's Capture of H.M.S. Macedonian by the U.S. Frigate United States, and the Engagement of the U. S. Frigate Constitution and H. M.S. Jarvis (three views) and the Peabody Essex Museum's America in Chase of His B. M. Packet Princess Elizabeth (1815), Naval Battle between Quebec Frigate and the French Surveillance (1815) and by one of his last, the Ship Two Brothers, Salem (1818). There is no dated painting thereafter.

In the years after his father died in 1806, and while weathering the life-long struggle with his disabilities, he was obliged to support the large family. It is possible that in those later years he would have had to devote more of his time to the more reliable income he was known to derive from painting carriages and signs. Ropes died, a consumptive, in 1819. He was 31.

We are fortunate then that he did find the time, the energy and the talent enough to produce this splendid four painting set, a contemporary panorama of the historic sea battle between Constitution and Guerriere.

A.J. Peluso, Jr., November, 2007....[more information available via subscription]

p4A Item D9847218
Category:  works on paper    Origin:  America
Type:  gouaches    Year:  1813

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