marine arms race on the Great Lakes

A reminiscence of strong wind on a relaxing afternoon

Nicholas Henderson and His Old-Timey Paintings
17 September 2021

Nicholas Henderson (1862-1934) was a Kingston marine artist who took after the British and Dutch maritime art tradition.  Like others, his training began at sea where he learned the workings of ships, the swell of the water and the life of a sailor.  He later completed art training, as evidenced here, with this ‘Certificate of Proficiency in Drawing from Models’ from the Ontario School of Art in 1889.

In this painting, Henderson presents a vivid presentation of 3 sailboats teetering on a sombre afternoon. The scene is the head of Lake Erie and each of the vessels is an accurate type of different styles of rigging. The group forms an effective pictorial composition, solidly painted after the manner of the English school, and shows accurate knowledge both of nautical detail and expert seamanship, which is to be expected from an artist who is a practical mariner as well as a gifted painter. 

The vessel in the left-midground is one of the old three-masted top-sail schooners, at one time often to be seen on the lakes. The scene focuses on several men, sailing their boat, against big waves. The whole scene is quite dynamic as if you could feel the heavy wind pushing up waves against the schooner. Although the sailboat in the front seems strong and stable, the second schooner in the background seems to be teetering. The three masts or “stately old barque beras'' dominate much of the upper-foreground and left-background, providing the audience with a colour contrast between the white masts and the blue waters. Lastly, the void space of the clouds and sky illustrates a relaxing atmosphere. 

An article from 1910 describes one of Henderson’s other painting; “Mr Henderson is to be congratulated on his picture, not only for its life and variety of action, and nautical correctness, but also for its harmony of colouring, its delicate atmospheric tones, the aerial grace of its summer clouds, and the movement of its rising waves, on which the steamboat in the distance seems to swing with the rhythmic sweep of nature. Mr Henderson has been styled the Canadian Mesdag, and the conception and execution of this fine picture bear out his artistic kinship to that distinguished Dutch marine painter.”

Although Nicholas Henderson passed away nearly a century ago, his contribution to the tradition of British marine painting is remembered in Kingston. You can even see some of his paintings in person at the Marine Museum!



Alexander StoringBy Ethan Chan

Research Assistant, Autumn 2020


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