Posner Maritime Art & the Move from Sail to Steam

ART – Learn about the transition from sail to steam through Posner maritime art. Examine the growing collection of paintings, half-models, and maritime artwork by noteworthy artists from the 19th and 20th centuries that is the Posner Collection. The family of Helen and Henry Posner, Jr. generously shared this collection, which SSHSA stewards.

To view more from the Posner Maritime Art Collection, check out SSHSA’s Virtual Museum.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Understand how works of art can teach us about the transitional period of sail to steam power.
  • Explain why steam vessels were still sail-rigged in the late 1800s into the 1900s.
  • Understand the role played by newly developed ironclad naval vessels during the Civil War.

RMS Britannic RMS Celtic at Queenstown, Ireland
by Parker Greenwood
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 18″

SS Britannic towing SS Celtic by George Parker Greenwood, c. 1884. From the Posner Maritime Art Collection, SSHSA Archives.

British artist and former Cunard Line Ship’s Officer, Parker Greenwood created this painting.  The signature, “P. Greenwood,” in the lower right of the painting.  The Liverpool city directories listed Parker Greenwood as a mariner as early as 1881, and later as an artist.  He received commissions from both the Cunard and White Star Lines. Greenwood is particularly known for his fine paintings of their transatlantic liners between 1880 and 1910.  Although often referred to as George Parker Greenwood, his birth name was Parker.  

This painting, c. 1884, depicts two White Star Line ships. The RMS Britannic,  built in 1873 by Harland and Wolff of Ireland, tows the damaged RMS Celtic (1872) for repairs. The Roches Lighthouse, at the entrance to Queenstown, Ireland (now Cork Harbor) is on the right.  Note the British paddle wheel tug to the right of Britannic.  Also note the American courtesy flags on the foremasts of the still sail-rigged steamships.

How long do you suppose it took to gain the confidence needed to give up expensive back-up sails, masts, rigging, and crew? The beginning of the end of sail took place at the battle between the Yankee Monitor and the Confederate Merrimac in 1862 during the American Civil war. Those steam-powered, ironclad ships, shoreline vessels didn’t carry sail because they were always close to land. Some of the first steamships without sail were riverboats. The Union made effective use of them in the Civil War. Ironclad gunboats helped the Union Army to gain control of the Mississippi River in the west.

Although the Navy started experimenting with steam as early as the War of 1812, steam-powered ships were required to have sails until the 1880s. The Navy transitioned away from sails in the 1890s with the first battleships. 

Image of two men on the deck of the ironclad USS Monitor, observing light damage caused to the turret during her fight with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, March 9, 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, James River, Virginia. Photo: James Gibson (1828-?). Source: LOC, Prints & Photo. Div.

The Monitor had a new feature: in her center, a gun turret replaced what would have been a mast. At the same time, the conservative British Admiralty tried to replace the fixed guns on their ironclad warships with rotating turrets. But masts and rigging interfered with the field of fire of a turret. The  Monitor did not experience that problem.

Yet the British clung to sail. They built several ships with both turrets and masts. Even though it was not as effective. Finally in 1871, 64 years after Robert Fulton’s steamship was a commercial success, the British Navy launch the first ocean-going warship without any sail — the H.M.S. Devastation. The Devastation set the pattern for future British sea power, but masts were still to be found on many merchant and passenger ships well into the 1900s, a full century after the first ocean-going steamboats.

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SS Drenthe
signed “DGY”
Oil on canvas, 25″ x 33″

Drenthe by DGY, c. 1876. From the Posner Maritime Art Collection, SSHSA Archives.

This painting depicts a single-funneled steamship, with two masts and a clipper bow, cutting through stormy seas under a gray-clouded sky. The unidentified artist signed the painting “DGY.” The Drenthe, a steamer of 2,296 tons, was built at Newcastle, England in 1875.  Her dimensions were 295 x 36 x 26 feet.  According to American Lloyd’s Register, which provided information on all seagoing, self-propelled merchant ships of 100 gross tonnes or greater and was published annually, Ruys and Hoven at Rotterdam, the Netherlands owned Drenthe from 1877 to 1883. The house flag flying from the mainmast looks like that of Ruys and Sons, of Rotterdam, c. 1883

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SS Kätie
by Antonio Jacobsen
Oil on canvas

Katie by Antonio Jacobsen. From the Posner Maritime Art Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Alexander Stephen and Sons of Glasgow, Scotland built the steamer Kätie, of 1880 (2790 tons), along with Martha, of 1884 (2107 tons), for the Stettiner Lloyd Line of Germany (1880-1886).  This line took immigrants from Stettin (now Poland) to New York, stopping at Scandinavian ports. When Stettiner Lloyd became insolvent, Stephen and Sons took Kätie back.  Interestingly, Kätie sailed for the Furness Line in 1887; then was renamed the Dunkeld in 1890.

SS Dunkeld, ex Kätie, struck a rock and sank off Lobos Island on March 25, 1895, while carrying a load of coal from Cardiff, England for Buenos Aires.   The French Steamer Portena rescued all except the Third Mate and Steward, who were afraid to swim for a lifeboat

This is quite an unusual painting for Jacobsen because he usually painted ships in profile. He has shown Kätie with a barkentine rig,  a sailing vessel with three or more masts, and one funnel.  Kätie appears stopped to pick up a pilot, as Pilot Schooner Number 11 (probably Phantom, of New York) is depicted on the left side of the painting.  The American Flag flies from the foremast, indicating Kätie is en route to New York and the Stettiner Lloyd house flag flies from the main mast.  The house flag has the American flag in the canton area, which is quite unusual.  Jacobsen created this painting in 1885.

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Student Assessment Questions

Download the pdf of the Student Assessment Questions.

  1. What can visual arts teach us about steamships?
  2. What do all these paintings have in common? How do they differ?
  3. Explain how these paintings illustrate the move from sail to steam power. Why use both?
  4. Explain why it took so long to move from sail to steam.

Additional Resources

For more information on ironclad gunboats, check out this PBS Learning Media lesson on this battle using Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War. 

View images of battleships from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Education Standards

National Core Arts Standards

4 ( Grades: K-12 ): Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

National Standards for History

5.2A.3 Identify the turning points of the Civil War and evaluate how political, military, and diplomatic leadership affected the outcome of the conflict.

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