Thursday, February 3, 2011

Artifact Spotlight: Painting of The Frigate Constellation vs L'Insurgente, 1928

---Joshua Howard, Curatorial Volunteer

On February 9, 1799 in the waters off Nevis, USS Constellation engaged and defeated the French frigate L’Insurgente. The capture of L’Insurgente was the first ship-to-ship victory in United States naval history. This week’s artifact spotlight is an oil on canvas painting of the engagement painted by maritime artist Charles Robert Patterson. This painting is part of a set of four scenes of important  naval engagements commissioned by Edward Berwind in 1928, The others include the battles between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis, USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, and the frigate United States and HMS Macedonian. The set was generously donated to the Naval War College Museum in 1963 by Charles E. Dunlap.


Constellation vs L'Insurgente by Charles Patterson
Constellation, one of the first six frigates built for the United States Navy, was launched on September 7, 1797 in Baltimore, Maryland. In December 1798, the 36-gun frigate under the command of Thomas Truxtun, set sail for the Caribbean with the mission to patrol and protect United States shipping from foreign threat during the nation's Quasi-War with France. On the morning of February  9, 1799, Constellation sighted  the French frigate, L’Insurgente during a severe storm and gave chase.  The battle that ensued lasted over an hour before the French vessel struck her colors and surrendered. As depicted in the painting, Constellation sustained major damage to her rigging and sails. L’Insurgente had focused its guns in this area as it was standard French procedure to disable a vessel in this manner. Constellation had more success aiming for the hull of her adversary. This tactic was designed to dismount enemy guns and cause the maximum damage to crew.  Constellation's crew suffered two deaths and a handful of injuries while L’Insurgente suffered 29 dead and approximately 70 wounded. The prize was brought to St. Kitts where she later became part of the United States Navy as the USS Insurgent.

Charles Robert Patterson was an English painter born on July 18, 1878 in England. He was a son of a shipbuilder and always held a deep fascination with the sea. In 1892, he went to sea as a cabin boy and spent approximately 14 years at sea on various vessels. Between voyages, Patterson spent time studying art and moving around the United States. In 1920, he became a United States citizen and travelled aboard a number US Navy vessels witnessing battle maneuvers. His works were part of a revival of the Age of Sail in art. During his life, he created hundreds of works related to maritime and naval themes. Patterson died in 1958 and his cremated remains were scattered from the deck of a US naval vessel.

Constellation was involved in a number of other engagements throughout her illustrious career. In 1845, she was ordered to the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth Virginia. In 1853, she was broken up and a new sloop-of-war bearing her name was launched the following year.

Image courtesy of the Naval War College Museum

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