A Trio of Philadelphia Maritime Painters

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Oceans and seas have long challenged civilization’s adventurous spirit. Sailors and their ships have struggled against billowing winds and sweeping tides, as well as fires, piracy, collisions, and warfare. All of this has been celebrated in story and song — and in works of art.

Artists of the day captured both the beauty and the rigors of those wonderful ships in their coveted canvases. Three of the most outstanding Philadelphia marine artists of the nineteenth century were contemporaries George R. Bonfield (1805–1898) and James Hamilton (1819–1878) and, a generation later, Franklin Dullin Briscoe (1844–1903). Although Bonfield’s life spanned much of the nineteenth century, Hamilton and Briscoe died at the age of fifty-nine. All were prolific painters who enjoyed prominence in their day.


George R. Bonfield

The long-lived George Robert Bonfield, born on February 4, 1805, in Portsmouth, England was brought to Philadelphia by his parents, Robert and Lydia Garret Abraham Bonfield, in 1816. Showing talent at an early age and encouraged by his mother, young Bonfield would sketch tall ships sailing in and out of Portsmouth Harbor. Even during his classroom studies, he would steal moments to sketch sailing ships from memory.

At the age of fifteen, he exhibited one of his seascapes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1820, attracting the attention of the Academy’s president, Joseph Hopkinson, who arranged for him to study with instructor Thomas Vest. He also studied with Thomas Birch. Bonfield exhibited at the Academy regularly between 1847 and 1867.

Having been trained by his father in stonecutting, the young Bonfield worked for Richard North, a prominent marble dealer in Philadelphia, mainly carving inscriptions and ornamental designs on gravestones. North occasionally sent him to work at Point Breeze, the Bordentown, New Jersey, estate of Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844), exiled King of Naples and Spain, where he cut and decorated imported stone.

Bonaparte fled to the United States after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which had deposed his younger brother Napoleon as the French emperor. After living in Philadelphia, Bonaparte, who styled himself as the Comte de Survilliers, acquired tracts of land totaling one thousand acres for a stylish country estate, located twenty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia. He elaborately landscaped the grounds of Point Breeze with miles of carriage drives, vistas, rare trees, gazebos, gardens, fountains, and a lake. Bonaparte had also amassed a sizeable art collection, considered one of the finest in America at the time. His collection of more than 150 paintings included works by Titian, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Raphael, and David. Bonfield recalled seeing “two very fine pictures by [Peter Paul] Rubens with several smaller ones, a good [Bartolome Esteban] Murillo and several examples of the Italian school” at Point Breeze.

Bonaparte gave Bonfield permission to study and copy works of art at Point Breeze during his leisure moments. His collection opened Bonfield’s eyes to the world of European tastes in fine art, even though the artist apparently learned all he knew of Europe from such paintings as Bonaparte’s. Art historians contend Bonfield did not venture far from his homes in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Bonfield created works of enduring quality for his patrons, many of whom were marine merchants. Great fortunes were being made in shipping and commerce, and Bonfield’s lively harbor scenes and ship portraits fulfilled the desire of his patrons. He was capable of painting a tranquil morning view on a river, a dramatic and romantic vision of a shipwreck off a rocky coast, or an idyllic beach scene.

He frequently exhibited at major venues on the East Coast, including the Maryland Historical Society’s first annual exhibition in 1848, along with Rembrandt Peale, Peter F. Rothermel, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Doughty, and James Hamilton. Bonfield displayed a lesser interest in topographical detail; like Hamilton, he was much more concerned with conveying his obvious fascination for tall ships and the sea. His predominant theme was the activity and the motion of ships that sailed the waters of the world. His marine paintings reveal a decidedly Dutch influence of contrasting light and dark to dramatize prominent subjects. Depth and perspective are achieved by low horizons under large skies of billowing clouds so that the feeling conveyed to the viewer is of an artist who knew his subject well. He apparently did paint many scenes from his imagination, as well as copying works by European artists, a common practice, which helps to explain his diverse styles.

Bonfield enjoyed the respect of his contemporaries, but perhaps the most eloquent appraisals of his work appeared in newspaper accounts of his death. The Philadelphia Item described him on July 29, 1898, two days after his demise at the age of ninety-four, as one of the “veterans, if not the father of marine painting in Philadelphia.”


James Hamilton

James Hamilton was born in Entrien, near Belfast, in Northern Ireland, on October 1, 1819. At the age of fifteen, he emigrated with his family to Philadelphia, the city that became his home for three decades. As a young man, Hamilton was employed by a banking firm — not the ideal position for an aspiring artist. He sought advice from John Sartain (1808– 1897), a noted English-born engraver who had emigrated to Philadelphia in 1830 at the age of twenty-two. Sartain welcomed him with enthusiasm and encouraged him to devote himself to a career in art. The young Hamilton followed Sartain’s counsel and did so well as an artist that, when just twenty-one years old, he exhibited at the Artists’ Fund Society of Philadelphia, established in 1834 to support local artists. He exhibited at the Artists’ Fund Society each year through 1845 and showed regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1847 through 1869. Hamilton was largely self-taught, but he did study with Thomas Birch.

He illustrated John Frost’s Pictorial History of the American Navy (circa 1845) and later collaborated with Elisha Kent Kane, Philadelphia native and Arctic explorer, providing illustrations for The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin (1853) and the two-volume Arctic Explorations (1856). Different from the romantic Thomas Birch (1779–1851), who preceded him and equally unlike the restrained and meticulous Hudson River Valley artists of the day, John F. Kensett (1816–1872) and William Trost Richards (1833–1905), Hamilton’s bold and direct expressions stand alone.

In 1854, Hamilton sailed to England and spent time in London, where he is believed to have been greatly influenced by the imaginative, large landscapes and seascapes of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851). Subsequently, Hamilton painted in the dramatic style established by the British Romantic tradition, combining unusual imagination with a strong sense of history. He later came to be known in art circles as the “American Turner.”

He returned to Philadelphia by 1856. Twenty years later, in 1875, he sold 109 of his works — the contents of his studio — through James S. Earle and Sons, a Philadelphia art dealer, and moved to the West Coast, settling in San Francisco with his family in 1876. He died unexpectedly in 1878, apart from his family who had since left for Pittsburgh; he was buried by the Art Association of San Francisco. After his death, Hamilton was described as “the ablest marine painter of this period,” and “unquestionably an artist of genius.” His importance derives from the extraordinary imagination he brought to American marine painting.

Anna Wells Rutledge, editor of Cumulative Record of Exhibitions Catalogues: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, published by the American Philosophical Society in 1955, documented 226 works by Hamilton. A decade later, in 1966, the Brooklyn Museum mounted a major exhibition of his works, showing approximately ninety of his paintings; the whereabouts of another sixty-two were unknown at the time. The exhibition demonstrated that Hamilton went beyond the tastes of his time in creating dark, fantastic, and turbulent seascapes, vastly romantic in character. Since that revealing exhibition, many more of Hamilton’s works have surfaced and a number of these are different in that they are beautiful, luminous paintings, proving his enormous dexterity in handling seascapes.

Today, many of Hamilton’s works are in private and public collections, their locations documented by the Inventory of American Paintings, maintained by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. His work is included in the collections of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Oakland Museum, Oakland, California; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; and Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia. Pennsylvania institutions holding paintings by Hamilton include the Allentown Art Museum, Reading Public Museum and, in Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Independence Seaport Museum.


Franklin Dullin Briscoe

Unlike Hamilton and Bonfield, Franklin Dullin Briscoe was a United States native, born in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 20, 1844. When he was four years old, his parents moved to Philadelphia.

Manifesting a love of art and, especially, marine painting, he became a pupil, at the age of sixteen, of Edward Moran (1829–1901), who had studied with Hamilton. Briscoe subsequently supplemented his studies in the galleries of London and Paris. He had hoped to make Paris his home but was discouraged by the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, waged from July 19, 1870, to May 10, 1871, which marked the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the Second Empire. His earlier paintings were marine views, and the effects he achieved were claimed as the best since the death of Hamilton. Briscoe’s marine paintings are bold and powerful. Among the most famous of his paintings, A Breeze Off Dieppe attracted acclaim at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. (Its whereabouts are unknown.) Briscoe specialized in harbor and shore scenes, many of which are believed to have been painted near New York.

In 1885, he completed The Battle of Gettysburg which, in ten canvases, each measuring thirteen by twenty-three feet, depicts the famous American Civil War encounter from the firing of the first shot by the 56th Pennsylvania Volunteers to the closing rout of Confederate General Ambrose P. Hill’s corps and the epic Pickett’s Charge. Widely exhibited throughout the country, The Battle of Gettysburg series was well known at the time of the artist’s death in 1903, but it is his marine paintings that are most valued today. Briscoe was a member of the Brooklyn Art Association, Philadelphia Sketch Club, Union League of Philadelphia, and the Artists’ Fund Society. He is represented in the collections of the Reading Public Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Atwater Kent Museum, Independence Seaport Museum, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

By the opening decades of the twentieth century, George R. Bonfield, James Hamilton, and Franklin Dullin Briscoe were overlooked as the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts and Crafts movements took hold. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, sponsored in 1913 by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors — known simply as the Armory Show — was a legendary watershed date in the history of American art. The landmark exhibit, featuring works by more than three hundred avant-garde American and European artists, buried the last traces of these and other nineteenth- century marine artists. For much of the twentieth century, this triumvirate of artists disappeared from the volumes of biographies of artists and were generally discounted in art history. Thanks, however, to a recent resurgence of interest in nineteenth-century American marine works, these artists are once again enjoying the recognition and prominence that they deserve with exhibitions, museum catalogues, articles, biographies, and escalating auction prices.


Travel Tips

Because Philadelphia maritime artists George R. Bonfield, James Hamilton, and Franklin Dullin Briscoe were so prolific, a number of museums in Pennsylvania hold paintings by the nineteenth-century trio.

Established in 1960 as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum and renamed Independence Seaport Museum in 1995, the museum is dedicated to exploring the seafaring history of Philadelphia. The museum administers the Spanish- American War cruiser USS Olympia and the World War II submarine USS Becuna, both of which have been designated National Historic Landmarks by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Located in the former Port of History building at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River, the museum offers a number of public history programs throughout the year for visitors of all ages. Independence Seaport Museum also owns a world-class collection of maritime objects and artifacts, fine arts, maps, charts, photographs, and ephemera.

Overlooking Presque Isle Bay in downtown Erie, the Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara recall the region’s rich maritime heritage. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) since 1998, the museum offers a wide range of multimedia and interactive exhibits, interpretive programs, and a recreation of the Niagara, the brig that carried Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819) to victory over the British during the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. The museum also includes exhibits of a former steam-powered electrical generating station and a reconstruction of the USS Lawrence, Perry’s first flagship during the battle.

Museums that regularly exhibit works by Pennsylvania artists include The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg; Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg; Allentown Art Museum, Allentown; Merrick Art Gallery, New Brighton; James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown; Reading Public Museum, Reading; Erie Art Museum, Erie; Everhart Museum, Scranton; Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, State College; Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford; and the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, all in Philadelphia.


For Further Reading

Flexner, James Thomas. Nineteenth Century American Painting, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.

Hough, Melissa. Ships and the Sea. Philadelphia: CIGNA Insurance Company, 1988.

Groce, George C. New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564–1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

Howat, John K. The Hudson River and its Painters. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Jacobowitz, Arlene. James Hamilton, 1819–1878: American Marine Artist. New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1966.

Jeans, Peter D. Ship to Shore. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

McClelland, James, and John M. Groff. George Robert Bonfield: Philadelphia Marine Painter, 1805–1898. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1978.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

Wilkins, Thurman, Thomas Moran, Artist of the Mountains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Wilmerding, John. A History of American Marine Painting. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1968.


The author thanks the following individuals for their assistance with this article: Paul and Harriet Gratz, Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, New Hope; Terrence C. Newman, Newman Galleries, Robert D. Schwarz Jr., The Schwarz Gallery, and Craig Bruns, curator, Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia; and John Wilmerding, professor of American painting, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.


Jim McClelland is executive director emeritus of the Philadelphia Art Alliance. As a freelance writer, he has published more than two hundred articles on the arts. He is the author of Fountains of Philadelphia (2005) and Philadelphia Guide to Visual & Performing Arts (2007), both published by Stackpole Books.