It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”. Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.” Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.
George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.
My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogy, the source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted! Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.
George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.
January 29th, 2017 at 8:49 am
Donna, I was fortunate enough to do the conservation of those three iconic Ropes paintings. Quite a lot of detail was revealed in their cleaning. Would be happy to talk to you about it some time.
January 29th, 2017 at 9:20 am
Wow, I would love that! Thanks so much.
January 29th, 2017 at 9:25 am
Not only did he have an eye for detail, but also an eye for color
January 29th, 2017 at 9:38 am
Did you know that Salem Common on Training Day is thought to be the first depiction in American art of African Americans treated like everyone else, enjoying the festivities, etc. vs. being shown as slaves or servants?
January 29th, 2017 at 10:42 am
I did not know that–very interesting; that seems so late in the western tradition but America is always different!
January 29th, 2017 at 11:44 am
Hello Donna, Thanks so much for this wonderful piece. I was an art history major and love reading about Mass. artists. Will keep an eye out
for Ropes’ paintings. Also, are you the Salem State professor mentioned in yesterday’s article in the Globe about the new memorial on Proctor’s Ledge?
January 29th, 2017 at 1:58 pm
No, Katherine: that’s my colleague Emerson “Tad” Baker–he’s the expert on the Salem Witch Trials and author of The Storm of Witchcraft. He was on the team that verified the site last year.
January 29th, 2017 at 5:17 pm
Thanks, Donna. I’ll have to go see the site when the memorial is completed.
January 29th, 2017 at 4:32 pm
Donna, another great piece with Salem roots. Such a short life for the artist Ropes, but he left so much…
January 31st, 2017 at 10:25 am
What fantastic paintings: detail, colour and so much MOVEMENT. Thanks you for publishing them!