Official Site of Speaker, Historian and Author Sean Munger


Historic Painting: “The Sinking of the S.S. Oregon” by Antonio Jacobsen, 1903.

sinking of the oregon by antonio jacobsen

This nautical painting is more documentary and historical than it is emotional or evocative, in contrast to someone like (for example) AivazovskyThe Sinking of the S.S. Oregon, painted by Antonio Jacobsen in 1903, depicts a real-life event. The Cunard liner Oregon, built in 1883 and briefly the holder of the Blue Riband as the fastest ship on the North Atlantic, was a luxury liner whose sumptuous accommodations, at least by 1880s standards, foreshadowed the “floating palace” era of Atlantic liners in the first decades of the 20th century. It was the first ship to have electric lights, which in the early 1880s were less than half a decade old. Unfortunately her career was short. On March 14, 1886, while crossing the Atlantic westbound, Oregon collided with a three-masted schooner which immediately sank. The disaster occurred just off Long Island, ironically only hours before Oregon was due to dock in New York. The collision tore a big hole in the ship’s side. All her passengers were eventually rescued, put off in lifeboats or taken aboard the sailing ship Fannie Gorham (pictured here) or the S.S. Fulda. Incidentally, Oregon suffered from the same problem that would prove disastrous in the Titanic disaster–she didn’t have enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew–but the collision happened close enough to land that there was no large loss of life. Oregon’s passengers were lucky.

This painting is interesting because it depicts the brief transitional era between sail and steam. Oregon is shown as a very modern-looking ship, as she was in the 1880s, but the rescue vessel is a proud sailing vessel, like something out of yesteryear. Sailing ships continued to ply the North Atlantic into the 20th century, but even by 1886 it was inevitable they were being far eclipsed by steamships. By 1903, when Jacobsen painted this, the transition was even more advanced.

Antonio Jacobsen was born in Denmark and studied art there, but came to the United States at the age of 23. Not known as a great artist, he was skilled at straightforward depictions of ships, which was why most of his patrons were ship owners who wanted him to document the vessels they owned and ran. His reputation as an artist increased steadily after his death in 1921. In 2006 a picture of his, which originally came to light through the TV series Antiques Road Show, sold for $281,000 at an auction. Not bad for a workhorse painter!

Incidentally the wreck of the Oregon has become a well-known and popular scuba diving site. There’s a page on it here, which includes photos of the remains of the ship.

This painting is in the public domain. I am not sure where the original is located; it may be in a private collection.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Bloomfield

    There is a degree of a mystery in the sinking. The “Oregon” was supposedly fatally damaged by a wooden schooner that collided with her, but this “schooner” also appears to have sunk (with all hands) and no ship of the type was reported missing. A number of years back, while researching the disaster, there was a suspicion that no collision with a schooner occurred, but that the “Oregon” may have been the victim of an accidental firing by an experimental cannon at a nearby naval base testing a cannon firing dynamite shells. In the Chester Arthur administration (1881 – 1885) the U.S. navy began it’s modernization campaign that really was pushed in the later administration of Benjamin Harrison (1889 – 1893). It may be that in trying to develop new weaponry an accident occurred and was covered up. Interestingly this possible explanation of the disaster resembles the 1990s airplane crash off Long Island which some conspirator theorists claim was due to the navy testing their guns and missiles at sea. But there the passengers and crew all were killed.

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