The Burning Ship
The theme of orange-flamed shipwrecks set against the black night sky was a staple of the European Romantic seascape tradition since the eighteenth century. Yet Albert Bierstadt, who painted The Burning Ship around 1865, may have been swayed by more contemporary undercurrents. While one ship burns, another sets out to sea, the moon its guide across the ocean.
The scene most likely depicts a Civil War skirmish in the South Pacific’s Caroline Islands. Like other Hudson River School painters who connected historical epochs to natural metaphors, Bierstadt juxtaposes the natural rhythms of the moon with the chaos of the manmade conflagration on the water, suggesting the somber tone of a divided nation, rather than a dramatic maritime battle. The Museum’s painting is a study for a much larger canvas of the same subject, dated 1871, at the Shelburne Museum.