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"Charles Belcher"

Probably 1852-1854
Origin: America, Missouri, St. Louis (possibly)
Unframed: 40" x 75 3/8" (101.6 cm x 191.5 cm) painting is not framed. area of composition: 37 3/4" x 72 7/8" (95.9 cm. x 185.1 cm.)
Oil on canvas with some pencil
Acquisition funded by Winthrop Rockefeller
Acc. No. 1956.111.1
Profile view of a paddle/side wheel steamboat. A large pennant flies aft, and a 16-starred American flag flies astern. Two large forward smokestacks belch curls of black smoke, two smaller ones amidships shoot streams of white smoke straight up into the air. There are three decks, the forward section of the lower deck being piled high with stacks of cord wood fuel. The middle deck shows staterooms with pale yellow shuttered doors. The third deck is only about one fourth the size of the lower decks and also shows rooms; the pilot house is located on top of the abbreviated third deck.The water is blue-green, and mountainous terrain is visible on the distant far shore. The oil painting has a 1 1/8-inch black-painted border all around the pictorial composition, with lettering in the middle of this lower margin. Under-painting of boat parts near the bow and behind the smokestacks indicates that the artist moved the composition back (to the viewer's R) in the picture plane at some point. Some pencil marks appear to have served as guidelines for the oil work, while in other instances, e.g., the guy wires, the pencil appears to have been added later and to serve as part of the overall composition.
Label:At the time of her completion, the Charles Belcher was considered the finest boat on the St. Louis – New Orleans trade route. The steamboat was built in St. Louis in 1852 over the extant hull of an older boat, named the Magnolia. The Charles Belcher transported sugarcane from Louisiana to a St. Louis refinery controlled by William H. Belcher and his younger brother, Charles.

Superstitious Mississippi river men believed that boats christened with names beginning with “M” were doomed to short lives. When Captain John N. Bofinger discovered that the Charles Belcher began life as the Magnolia he declined to pilot the boat. Bofinger’s premonitions proved valid, for on her sixth trip, the Charles Belcher burned on February 4, 1854. The disastrous fire quickly spread through the wharf and consumed five other steamboats.

This portrait was likely commissioned by the Belcher brothers or Captain Carlisle who piloted the ship. The white froth emerging from the enormous paddlewheels and the dense black clouds of smoke erupting from her stacks capture the power and drama that made America’s steamboats such striking and memorable sights.
Provenance:Old Print Shop, New York, NY
Mark(s):Painted in the canvas's lower margin in "THIS MAGNIFICENT STEAMBOAT IS OF 14,000. TONS, AND $90,000 COST." "CHARLES BELCHER" is painted on the forward pennant and on the side of the pilot house, while "CHARLES/BELCHER" is on the side wheel cover. Mock writing reminiscent of "CHARLES BELCHER" is on the front of the pilot house. A modern, red-bordered adhesive label on the stretcher reads "#2659 Paddle steamboat. . ./ 'Charles Bel. . .her'/. . ."