Robert Salmon (1775-1858)

Robert Salmon (1775-1858)

While considered a leading figure in early American marine painting, Robert Salmon was in fact born and raised in Cumberland, England, and can credit the masters of the British School for his technique and skill in topographic painting. As had James Buttersworth and Thomas Birch, Salmon introduced a younger generation of New England marine painters to European modes when he arrived in the United States in 1828, and thus acted as a catalyst to the development of a unique American School of painting. His influence had a lasting effect on Fitz Henry Lane, A.T. Bricher, and William Trost Richards, among others - artists who shaped the Luminist style that is so highly regarded today.

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Even in Salmon’s earliest known painting, a work dating to 1800, the young artist was already creating imagery of the ships and harbors of the United Kingdom. He exhibited his creation Whitehaven Harbor at the Royal Academy of London in 1802, but in 1806 seemed to officially begin his career as a fine artist. At this time, Salmon began his careful documentation of his work, noting painting no. 1 in his personal ledger. By 1839 he had documented 1,000 pieces and then began his numbering system again from one. 

After spending his early years in Liverpool, Salmon visited Greenock in 1811, an active port on the west coast of Scotland, just over 20 miles down the Clyde River from Glasgow.  He joined the town’s Society for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences and exhibited ten works in a Society show in 1813. Salmon resided in Greenock for over ten years, returning in 1825 after a reprieve in Liverpool, and likely visiting the city on numerous later occasions. When he moved to Boston in 1828, he began the second phase of his career and gained popularity in the United States: Henry Tuckerman in his 1867 Book of the Artists, mentions Salmon as “one of earliest marine painters of reputation in Massachusetts”.[i] Salmon resided in a Boston studio on the Marine Railway Wharf, to which he added a large bay window that granted him views of the harbor. His time in Boston was devoted to his art: he exhibited his marine paintings at the Boston Athenaeum, showed alongside Durand, Doughty, Stuart, Harding and Audubon, created commissioned works for local patrons, and executed a series of large-scale murals of the 1816 battle at Algiers. (Note: Visit the history section of the Vose Galleries website for our “Tale of An Art Dealer” regarding these works, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut). By 1836, it is said that he achieved the very height of his career in the United States.

Salmon remained very popular even during the decades after his death, with venues in Boston and Philadelphia featuring exhibitions of his work. In 1881, a Miss Darracott thankfully transcribed his ledgers so that the greater public could benefit from his fastidious nature and achieve greater understanding of his oeuvre.

References: John Wilmerding, Robert Salmon Painter of Ships and Shore, 1971; Robert Salmon’s Day Book, compiled by Miss Darracott, 1881;John Wilmerding, “A New Look at Robert Salmon,”, Antiques, Jan. 1965; Caron Le Brun, “Salmon,” The Boston Sunday Herald, April 30, 1967l; Vose Galleries Artist File.

[i] John Wilmerding, Robert Salmon Painter of Ships and Shore, 1971, p.3.

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