Ships Unloading, New York

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Ships Unloading, New York
Samuel Colman, Jr.
Oil on canvas mounted on board
41 5/16 x 29 15/16 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

This painting shows a busy dock in New York harbor. The scene is full of activity—men in conversation, horses pulling a cargo-filled wagon, and a steamboat puffing smoke—giving us a sense of vibrant commerce. But the focal point of the painting is bright white cotton, seen both in its raw form, in bales in the foreground, and transformed into ships’ sails. Men tug and lean on the giant bales, and many more are stacked behind them. The warm, bright colors and the detail glorify the scene as productive and peaceful all at once.

When Samuel Colman made this painting in 1868, the cotton economy was recovering from the Civil War. Cotton was still an important commodity to the North and the South. Note the ship’s banner on the left that reads “London and New York Line.” Southern planters sold cotton to New York merchants, who then sold it to textile manufacturers in the U.S. or exported it to Great Britain and beyond. After the war, the American cotton industry was no longer the dominant force in Britain’s textile market.

Prior to the Civil War, most American cotton was produced by enslaved people, but some was grown with free labor. The nearest ship, the Glad Tidings, is known to have carried such free labor cotton during the war.  After the war, the Glad Tidings would have only carried free labor cotton. Paintings like this remind us how important cotton was to commerce and trade during the Civil War era.

1. As you look at this painting where do you imagine you are in relation to everything in it? How do you imagine moving through the scene? The artist leaves space open in the foreground. Why might he have done this?

2. The artist chose a vertical instead of a horizontal format for this painting. What effect does the strong vertical format have?

3. Is there anything about this painting that tells us about the importance of cotton during the time Samuel Colman painted it? Please explain.

4. How are goods transported today? What has changed since the time this painting was made? What would a painting about the movement of goods today look like?

Further reading:

Newberry Library. "The Cotton Landscape." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.

Terra Foundation for American Art . “Samuel Colman Jr. – Ships Unloading, New York.” Terra Foundation for American Art.$0040175/0?t:state:flow=a1e5f1ad-aa83-4f3e-8407-a86310bf11d5.

©Terra Foundation for American Art