Beavertail Tower Lighthouse, Jamestown, Rhode Island
Oil on Canvas, 13 x 18 inches
Gift of Roger King
Located on the southern tip of Jamestown, Rhode Island, Beavertail Lighthouse played a pivotal role in the success of Newport’s shipping industry. From its initial erection in 1749 to the present day, Beavertail has provided sailors safe passage though often treacherous waters to Newport Harbor. As Newport declined in importance as a center of commercial shipping and reinvented itself as a fashionable seaside resort for the wealthy and upwardly mobile in the 19th century, Beavertail prevailed as a popular landmark for tourists. Additionally, Beavertail served as a test center for the ongoing development of foghorn technology, and boasted a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens and lighting apparatuses.
The third lighthouse to be built within the English colonies, money was raised for Beavertail’s construction by the creation of the first tariff on imports and exports coming through Newport in 1731. The stone structure depicted in the painting is in fact the third version of Beavertail lighthouse, erected in 1856 as a replacement for the wooden structure originally built in 1753. This earlier lighthouse was famously burned by the British upon their retreat from Newport in 1779, but subsequently was rebuilt in 1783.
The painting depicts the lighthouse and accompanying buildings as they appeared between approximately 1856 and 1900. The current lighthouse and keeper’s house (the larger white structure to the left of the tower) were both completed in 1856. Light keeper Silas Gardner Shaw had both a whitewashed sty and hen house built during his first tenure in the post (1858-1862). These are likely depicted as the small structures adjacent to the assistant keeper’s house to the right of the tower. The upper half of the tower was painted white for greater visibility in 1900. It is important to note, however, that fact that the painting depicts Beavertail lighthouse between 1856 and 1900 does not exclude the possibility that it was painted after 1900, possibly from another source.
Beavertail Lighthouse was depicted as it would have been seen from a vessel approaching Narragansett Bay. The difficulty of executing an image from this perspective suggests that this composition may be an artistic convention. The image of a lighthouse standing as a single focus amidst an unruly sea and thunderheads ominously gathering in the distance effectively conveys the idea of the lighthouse as a beacon safeguarding those at sea. In comparison, a more natural land-based composition, while more realistic, would diminish the iconographic power of the subject.
Charming as the subject matter may be, this work cannot be accurately described as either a fine example of dramatic painting or realism. The stylized treatment of the crashing waves in the foreground, the flat and formulaic treatment of a threatening sky, and the overly simplistic treatment of architectural forms suggests that the painter lacked formal training. Additionally, in comparison to the size and depth of the churning sea and sky, the middle ground is flattened and compressed, suggesting at best a rudimentary understanding or use of proportion and perspective. The artist seemed to have relied instead on a more vernacular treatment of various subject matter within the composition, further promoting the possibility that this may have been painted by an itinerant or amateur artist.
Newport became famous as a seaside resort initially for wealthy antebellum southerners seeking respite from the sweltering southern coastal cities, and increasingly for members of New York and Boston’s elite. The city grew steadily from the 1830’s onward through the end of the 19th century as a playground for the wealthy, luring artists who sought to reap financial benefit by painting maritime and coastal scenes, which would then serve as stylish souvenirs and mementos.
Beavertail lighthouse thus took on a secondary function as a pleasurable scenic venue for visitors to take in the views of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic beyond. Although maritime paintings of ships and battle scenes dominated the 19th century market, harbor views and coastal scenes were a similarly popular, though less aggressive aspect of the genre. Generally speaking, lighthouses are rarely found as the primary focus of fine art maritime painting. However, given Beavertail’s iconic status within the larger Newport landscape and history, the lighthouse may have been a popular subject for amateur artists in the area.
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Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association: http://www.beavertaillight.org/
Jamestown, Rhode Island Information: http://www.jamestown-ri.info/history.htm
United States Coast Guard Index of Lighthouses: http://www.uscg.mil/history/h_lhindex.asp