Alexander Gallery, New York
Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York
Private collection, Chappaqua ,New York, 2006
Private collection, New York
Sunrise from Chapman Dock and Old Brooklyn Navy Yard, East River, NY, oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x
50 1/4 inches, signed; sold at Christie's New York, November 30, 1995, to a private
New York Harbor with Brooklyn Bridge, painted after 1869; The Henry R. Luce Center for the
Study of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (listed as "G. Baker")
Elisha Taylor Baker was a distinguished marine painter known for his meticulous depictions of merchant ships, yachts, and steamboats. He spent his early career working alongside his family in the Connecticut whaling ports, building an understanding of maritime life that became his artistic signature. Just as Archibald Cary Smith and Warren Sheppard drew upon their work as yacht designers to create marine paintings, Baker translated his nautical expertise into exacting ship portraits and compelling seascapes. He registered as an artist in New York City in 1868 and traveled throughout New England, painting its rocky coasts, industrious harbors, and quiet coves.
Painted around 1886, at the height of his career, East River Scene, Brooklyn, NY is one of Baker’s most fully realized works. The East River housed a thriving shipbuilding industry in the nineteenth century and was known to produce the highest-quality ships in the world.[i] The river attained iconic status when Herman Melville wrote about its beauty in the opening passage of Moby-Dick and Walt Whitman set a poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” on its shores. In the second half of the nineteenth century, marine artists like James Buttersworth took to painting the waters around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a popular site due to its industrial force and national importance. The setting clearly inspired Baker, who produced two of his most lyrical works from views of the yard: Sunrise from Chapman Dock and Old Brooklyn Navy Yard, East River, NY and East River Scene.
Both paintings show the site from a vantage point across the river, witnessed at morning and at night. The sun blazes and flashes in Sunrise from Chapman Dock, calling the river to life, and then slowly descends into shimmering slumber in East River Scene. Here Baker captures the atmospheric quality of the river at night, when the sky is tinged in bands of pink and purple and the setting sun casts flickering reflections on the water below. The proto-Impressionistic handling of light and shadow brings out the dramatic quality of the river, which had recently been the site of the most powerful man-made explosion in history.
In 1885, just before Baker painted East River Scene, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated an area of the river known as Hell Gate to clear it of its treacherous reefs and rocks. A crowd of thousands gathered to witness the blast, and the New York Times devoted its entire front page to the event, which it extolled as “a triumph of human will over nature.”[ii] Baker’s painting suggests a response to this feat in its reconciliation of man and nature. The perfectly balanced composition, in which the horizon line runs across the near middle of the canvas and the sun falls slightly left of center, creates a harmonious effect. The Brooklyn Bridge is visible just beyond the horizon, forming a romantic symbol of progress and connection.
Baker depicts the boats and warehouses of the shipping industry in a similar fashion, positioning them in line with the energy of the sun: the tallest structures lie directly beneath the golden glow, while the vertical beams of the dock in the foreground extend the column of light reflected on the water’s surface. The wooden and steel forms provide a rugged contrast to the diffuse light of the sky, anchoring nature’s intangible grandeur to the man-made achievements that lie at anchor in the navy yard. The best aspects of Baker’s style shine throughout this tour de force, illuminating his distinctive view of maritime life in the most brilliant painterly light.
Baker’s work is rare today; in 1979, Peter Falk reported that the artist’s oeuvre consisted of twenty-four known works and eleven attributions.[iii] The scarcity of Baker’s work makes it quite valuable. His paintings are in the collections of the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art and several prominent maritime museums, including the Mystic Seaport Museum, the Kendall Whaling Museum, and the Mariners’ Museum.
[i] “Commerce: Shipbuilding,” The Greater Astoria Historical Society, Inc.,
[ii] William Kornblum, At Sea in the City: New York from the Water’s Edge (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2002), chapter 7, accessed at http://www.newyorkhistory.info/Hell-Gate/index.html.
[iii] Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art: 1564–1975 (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999), 179.