Lahaina Maui: The Whaling Brig “Isabella” Arriving In 1865


Having read about the whaling stations in the Hawaiian Islands, I felt that my volume of work recreating harbor scenes in the days of merchant sail would be incomplete without this subject. On trips to Australia and Hong Kong, I was fortune enough to stop over in Honolulu, and while driving around was amazed at the sheer mountain faces on the northeast side of the island, which looked almost as if they had been covered with emerald-green carpet. Yet the lushness of the vegetation, the character of the mountains, and the clarity of the atmosphere seemed quite different from other tropical zones such as Africa or the West Indies.

A gallery in Maui suggested that I consider painting Lahaina, an important whaling station frequented by American whale ships operating in the Pacific and in the Arctic fishery north of the Bering Strait. In April 1989, I set up a visit to the island to investigate the possibilities.

When I arrived, I was immediately impressed by seeing, as the plane landed, the range of volcanic peaks which form the backbone of the island. If no concept could be developed in terms of a wharfside scene, this would surely form a magnificent backdrop for a painting and give me the opportunity to get the emerald-carpeted effect that had so impressed me in Honolulu.

I settled into an oceanside condo, and was disappointed to find a turn for the worse in the weather. I spent the first two rainy days checking out local experts and collections of old prints, and was soon able to find out exactly which buildings had survived the passage of time and which had not. It was soon obvious that an offshore painting with the mountainous backdrop would be the best choice, as in the mid-1800s (and it is still the case today) no substantial dockage facilities had been constructed. Most services afforded the ships were effected by the small local outriggered canoes for which Hawaii was famous.

The rain continued unabated for the next eight days. I saw many whales breaking the ocean’s surface near the shore, and was amazed to see the water run-off turn the seawater red for several hundred yards out from the beach.

This painting, started on-site, was completed with the help of advice from the Whaling Museum staff in New Bedford, Massachusetts, home port for many of the vessels I chose for the scene. My intention was to give the picture a tropical, extravagant look, and I had the silly notion that to get the brilliance of the greens I should augment my palette with more vivid pigments. This turned out to be a mistake, as I began the picture with an unusually high key of brilliant color, only to discover later that the five colors of my regular restricted palette were in the end perfectly adequate to give the effect that had struck me so deeply.

I had shortened my stay because of the incessant rain, but on the way to the airport suddenly the clouds broke and I was able to get a hurried sketch of the mountain skyline prior to taking off. But my imagination swept me along when I got down to the guts of my picture. Having read all those evocative tales of pop-eyed whalemen being greeted by charming women in their canoes, I got things going well enough to the point that I felt I was almost witnessing the scene myself. The brig “Isabella” would give contrast to the usual bark rig of other whaleships at anchor, with the old courthouse as the focal point of the shoreline buildings. Again, the sky is the key to this composition, and it needed special elegance to counter the majesty of those magnificent peaks.

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