I’ve always had a lifelong interest in things that move; on land, on water, and in the air. My early career in history museums took me to the maritime field, and frankly I’ve never relinquished my fascination with all things afloat. Along the way I was introduced to fascinating characters: sailors and their wives, shipbuilders, whalemen—and artists. And as it turns out one such artist has “followed’ me to each institution where I have worked, including CHS.
His name is Jurgan Frederick Huge (variously pronounced “Hew-gay” or “Hoo-ga”) a seaman who is believed to have been born in Hamburg, Germany, about 1809. Sometime in the late 1820s Huge found himself in Bridgeport, CT, a growing seaport and industrial town recently split from Stratford. Forsaking the mariner’s life he marries well (his wife, Mary Shelton, was the daughter of a prominent businessman), and ultimately becomes a successful grocer. But there was something else at work in his mind besides running a business and raising a family, as he takes up painting local scenes (businesses and private residences), and, of course, vessels. To my knowledge his earliest known painting, dated 1838, is a watercolor of a Long Island Sound steamboat. That several of his steamboat portraits were subsequently issued as lithographs suggests his work was well-received.
So far I haven’t seen any evidence that Huge formally studied painting. Stylistically his artwork is naïve, yet detailed with a draftsmanlike quality similar to that of the work of the brothers John and James Bard in New York. This is particularly true of his vessel portraits, many of which are of sailing vessels and steamboats with local connections on Long Island Sound. The complicated rigging of sailing vessels depicted in his works is very accurate, perhaps belying the shipboard experience of his younger days. His water, on the other hand, is distinctive—and often just plain crazy: a sometimes cataclysmic mixture of conflicting waves and crests suggesting that the vessel is about to disappear into some kind of Charybdis-like whirlpool! So…what’s not to love?!
As time passes art seems to trump selling groceries, and by 1870 Frederick, as he now called himself, is listed as an artist rather than a grocer in the Bridgeport city directory; in fact, he is known to have provided drawings and sketches for Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s. Now typically a marine artist would sell his works to vessel owners or shipmasters; on occasion he might even do multiple copies if a sales opportunity presented itself. It is tough to say how many paintings Huge produced before his death in 1878, but between four and five dozen are known to survive, including two in the CHS collection. The first is a spectacular watercolor portrait of the bark Bridgeport, built in that city and owned by local interests. The characteristic flat, accurate quality of his work is clearly evident here. As she was a local vessel Huge was no doubt able to make careful detailed sketches that resulted in this masterpiece, which I date to 1865 when the Bridgeport entered service.
A second work in the collection is as much a landscape as it is a ship portrait, capturing as it does Fayerweather Island and its signature lighthouse near Bridgeport Harbor. Initially it was also a tantalizing mystery, as it shows a beautifully rendered passenger barge being towed by a—what is that?! It looks like a large open boat, but there’s no sail or oars or other kinds of propulsion. And come to think of it the hull looks like a towboat of the period. Hmm… As it turns out, occasionally Huge created multiple copies of paintings, apparently including this large oil on canvas. As he hoped to sell copies to different towboat companies, he left the vessel details (like the superstructure!) unfinished until he landed a commission. Then he would complete the towboat to match a customer’s specific vessel. And like other artists he left a black band across the bottom of the painting where he would then add the name of the vessel and perhaps that of the captain or owner. He would do whatever the customer wanted. Smart guy indeed!
Ultimately commercial artists like Huge found that the development of photography robbed them of their primary market, which may explain why several near identical copies of our mystery painting remained uncompleted and unsold at the time of his death. Perhaps he should have kept the grocery; but then again, his lively paintings have endured much longer than anything in the produce aisle…