Anton De Clerck (1842-1899)

Remarkable Primitive Pierhead School Ship Portrait
Depicting a Topsail Schooner with Attendant Vessel and Lighthouse
Watercolour, Gouache, Pen and Ink on Paper
Belgian, Inscribed "RARE + PLANT. OF PADSTOW . CAPT W.H. TABB ." and dated "1895"

27.5" high x 37.25" wide (framed)

Ref: 10693

In January 1875, Captain Francis Mehan of the “Alida” wrote to his wife Ethelda, in Maine USA, from Liverpool, to tell her he had ordered three watercolour portraits of his ship, for which he paid De Clerck one pound ten shillings each for the two unframed works and the third including a frame for two pounds, two shillings and sixpence. Capt. Mehan was one of hundreds of proud captains who commissioned portraits of their vessels from a random section of largely itinerant, self-taught artists specialising in pierhead ship portraits in the flourishing shipping market of that time. The prices indicate that De Clerck’s income would have been equivalent to that of a skilled labourer.

Born in the seaport town of Ostend in Belgium, on 24th September 1841, with the full name Aristidius Amatus Joannes Declerck, as a young man he is thought to have gone to work at sea and then probably trained as a draughtsman. This is evidenced by an embossed paper label glued to the back of an autograph work which read: “A.DE CLERCK / MARINE ARTIST / SHIPS DRAFTER”, sometime after he had launched his career as a pierhead painter in Antwerp his late twenties, in the mid 1860’s.

In the early 1870s De Clerck moved with his wife and first child to Liverpool where the seven miles of floating docks were thriving with a prodigious volume of trade with North America. He was a prolific painter who developed a niche market creating portraits of many coastal schooners and other smaller trading vessels, as well as the large transatlantic square riggers. In 1879 he returned to Antwerp in Belgium, as a proficient and successful marine artist with an individual style and distinct hand. It was at this time that he picked up the nickname of “The Rembrandt of Antwerp”.

His chosen medium of working in watercolour and gouache meant that he could create his portraits speedily, which was vital in a rapidly moving environment where the smaller ships may only be in dock for two or three days. His works are rarely signed but are joyfully expressive and immediately recognisable. Always painted boldly and colourfully on a large scale, in water and body colour, with great attention paid to the details of rigging and “architecture” of the vessels portrayed. Executed with fine confident lines in a uniquely stylised, non- academic technique, sometimes enhanced by areas of gloss varnish. Several examples are also inscribed with the name of the vessel and details of the ship’s captain.

With the bright, immediate, colourful, and spirited nature of his work, De Clerck has become acknowledged as one of the most significant primitive Pierhead Painters of his generation, with an innate understanding of his subject, fluent draughtsmanship, bold colours and total disregard of perspective and academic conventions. Qualities we appreciate and admire.

Examples of his work are held in many institutional collections in Europe and America, including:

- National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

- Peabody Museum of Salem, Salem Mass. USA

- Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada

- Yarmouth County Museum, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

- Norsk Sjofartsmuseum, Oslo, Norway

- Assens Somandsforening, Assens, Denmark

- Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia

stylised, non- academic technique, sometimes enhanced by areas of gloss varnish. Several examples are also inscribed with the name of the vessel and details of the ship’s captain.

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