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Book source: The Saint Louis Art Museum Resource Center

Subject: [Arts] John Greenwood (American Painter, 1727-1792)


A reproduction of "Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam" is exhibited in the Cornerhouse-Dixie bar, Paramaribo, Suriname. It's interesting to note how many Americans from early on Suriname's history visited that country.

The original oil painting (95.9X191.2 cm) is exhibited in the Saint Louis Art Museum, St Louis, MO, USA. Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam is thought to be the earliest example of American genre painting; that is, painting that depicts scenes from everyday life. Patterned after a composition by William Hogarth, the English engraver and painter, this genre scene was probably painted for an inn or tavern. In sharp contrast to the sober portraits of the era, it portrays a lively group of sea captains cavorting in various stages of drunkenness in a port tavern. A number of the captains can be identified. The man seated at the table smoking a pipe is Captain Nicholas Cooke, the future governor of Rhode Island. To the right of him is Esek Hopkins, the first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. On Esek Hopkins' right is his brother Stephen, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam is exceptional for the vigorous satire and sly humor which enliven the scene: a man cheats at cards by slipping one into his tricorn hat, another man joins the festivities in his night clothes, and another, too ill to notice, is oblivious to the candle burning his coat.

The artist , John Greenwood, a native of Massachusetts was the son and grandson of Boston shipwrights. By the age of 14, Greenwood was apprenticed in a shop which specialized in sign painting and engraving, and he soon began to paint portraits. He was self-taught, but his early works were influenced by the engraver Peter Phelman and the painter John Smibert. In 1752, the artist departed for Surinam on the northeast coast of South America, then a busy port-of-call for New England merchant ships. While in Surinam, Greenwood is said to have painted 115 portraits, as well as the Museum's painting of sea captains enjoying themselves in port. However, this is his only painting of that period known to have survived. Like many American artists of the 18th century, Greenwood later sailed to Europe, eventually setting in London and becomming an art dealer.

This painting may be John Greenwood's most interesting known work. Although the artist's technical limitations are apparent, the rough caricature of sailors on a spree is handled in good humor. The colors Greenwood used have a frosty tinge, creating an unusual glow across the surface of the painting. Artificial sources of light cast uneven shadows across the group of twenty-two figures, an ambitious number for a painter who concentrated on single portraits in most of his works. The painting is an amusing look at the less serious side of a merchant captain's life.

Met dank aan Albert Buys

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