USS Constitution Through Artists’ Eyes

USS Constitution’s storied career has been depicted by artists for over three centuries.

Most artistic images of “Old Ironsides” reflect her moments in battle, whether the bombardment of Tripoli in the first Barbary War or her victories against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. There is, however, a small but growing collection of artwork portraying Constitution when she has not been at her heroic best, but when she was being built, repaired, or restored.

The painting, sketches, illustrations, and photographs begin with the creation of the frigate and her launch. While there are no eighteenth century paintings or sketches of Constitution’s construction, twentieth and twenty-first century artists have attempted to show the frigate’s building and Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End.

Construction: 1795-1797

The most recent artwork happens to depict the very beginning of Constitution’s construction at Hartt’s Shipyard in 1795. British illustrator Stephen Biesty was commissioned by the USS Constitution Museum to develop a series of drawings to use in an animated film for the Forest to Frigate exhibit. The illustration below shows one section of framing during Constitution’s construction. Note the ship’s keel resting on blocks in the bottom of the building ways, the v-shaped floor timber rising up off the keel, the multiple sections that make up the individual frame, and the rib-like structure in the center forming the transom. Biesty’s detailed drawings came to fruition because of exhaustive research by Matthew Brenckle, the USS Constitutions Museum’s Research Historian. The watercolor and ink drawings represent the best understanding at this time of how Constitution was constructed.

USS Constitution Museum Illustration of Framing Section

 

 

Watercolor and ink illustration by artist Stephen Biesty showing a section of framing in the building ways at Hartt’s Shipyard. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 2331.72. © Stephen Biesty, 2015]

 

 

Cheslie D’Andrea (1913-1999) trained as a magazine illustrator and also served as a combat artist during World War II. In the early-to-mid 1990s, he was the USS Constitution Museum’s artist-in-residence, with the mission to create scenes in Constitution’s history that had not been previously depicted. D’Andrea represented the ship’s construction at Hartt’s Shipyard from a “gull’s eye view,” rendering Boston’s sloping landscape and the newly constructed State House on Beacon Hill. The tightly packed scene succinctly captures the drama of the enormous warship that had slowly risen above the North End skyline. Constitution’s hull is the height of a four-story building and, by the time she was launched, she towered over all the buildings with the exception of the church steeples.

USS Constitution Museum painting Building USS Constitution

 

Acylic painting, titled “Building USS Constitution, 1797,” by Cheslie D’Andrea, 1992. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 2104.11]

 

 

 

Excerpt from USS Constitution Through Artists’ Eyes: Part 1 by M.M. Desy & K. Monea which appeared first in Restoration Blog/USS Constitution Museum.