"Over time, the images evolved from ships in port to more elaborate ships at sea," said Freeman. "As artists began to better understand the elements, the wind and waves and direction the boat was sailing, they became more astute at capturing the essence of being at sea, and the paintings took on greater veracity."
Historically, nautical art has been about boats on the water. Early maritime painters focused on capturing a good likeness of the vessels but tended to miss the finer elements of the natural environment. In recent decades, however, the genre has evolved well beyond the ship to incorporate a wider range of contemporary artists, thus elevating the category to a more painterly, artistic expression that encompasses the setting and the sentiment. Nautical art is now collected as "Hard Over" is an acrylic on canvas by Chalk and Vermilion artist Kerry Hallam. much for the calibre of art and the artistic interpretation of the vessel.
The tradition of nautical art is as old as the sea and, for many, as enduring. For artists and collectors, it is and always will be an archive of historic sailing vessels, legendary battle scenes and, for some, navigational charts.
The true historians, perhaps, will focus on an era, an event or a place in history, invest considerable research and capture that moment in exact measure in a realistic portrayal of ships at sea. Increasingly, however, others are creating an attractive or compelling nautical scene that may seem timeless or without anchor.
"Nautical art is a moving target, an evolving definition," said the Cutwater Group's Fred Polhemus of Vermont, who hails from Mystic Seaport. "In the last few decades, the definition has expanded well beyond traditional imagery. More artists have come into this market to test the waters. Artist John Stobart built the genre of historic port scenes. William Davis can do lilacs in a Nantucket basket on the porch of a beach house and call it nautical art. Certainly it's open to interpretation, but with all due respect to what it was, nautical art is now all things aquatic."
One of the defining lines in a category of art such as aviation, automotive or marine art," said Eric Danneman, general manager for Greenwich, Conn.-based Chalk & Vermilion, "is if the emphasis is on the thing being pictured rather than on the artistic elements of the piece, where the thing is secondary."
Although the company represents Kerry Hallam, a British artist whose work could be considered marine art, Danneman would classify it as seascapes that happen to have sailboats in the composition.
"The emphasis here," said Danneman, "is more on the feeling trying to be expressed by the artist, not the accuracy of the image. In a seascape, the idea is not to picture a specific boat but the idea of a boat. And the point is that there are two different markets here, both viable. It's difficult to determine why people buy certain art if it's not for the picture; it could be for the style or technique of the artist or a feeling or response it gives them. Then again, the same buyer could be in both markets, having a reason for wanting an America's Cup yacht and also seeking something more general and more artistic within the genre."
The market for nautical art is as strong as the lure of the sea, the rivers, the lakes, and as consistent, if not cyclical, as the tides. Part of the strength lies in the increasing breadth and diversity of the category, which exposes it to a wider audience. As the imagery broadens, so, too, does the interest.
"The attraction to nautical art is pretty universal," said Freeman. "Although, if I had to make a general statement, I would say that male buyers have a slightly greater interest, particularly among the traditional imagery. But the category has become so diversified. It's not just the tall ships and square-riggers any more, which really opens up the market."
By and large, collectors seem to hail from the West Coast and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as the Great Lakes region. They buy what they know, what they appreciate and what speaks to their heritage, their lifestyle and why they live where they do. However, the market also enjoys a considerable following within the ostensibly land-locked areas among collectors who appreciate the imagery for the same reasons their coastal counterparts do. They just don't live there.
"Nautical images are appealing in non-coastal communities," said Anita Kirk, promotions specialist for Art in Motion, a Vancouver-based open-edition print publisher. "When people live inland and away from the coast, these nautical images provide a sense of fantasy, where they could almost smell the salt air if they stepped inside."
As in most genres of art, the nautical or marine artist is a risk taker. In the business of art, top-tier artists who could elect to paint any subject may make the aesthetic decision to paint what is interesting, challenging or inspiring, but they also must make the economic decision to paint within a category whose market is big enough to create a following and ensure a living.
"The people who make, those who sell and the guys who collect marine art are really all partners in the equation," said former director of Mystic Seaport, J. Russell Jinishian, who runs his own, eponymous maritime gallery in Fairfield, Conn. "Every activity supports the other."
Among the grand diversity of artists and imagery within the nautical art genre, Jinishian recognizes two separate and distinct groups of collectors who drive the market: those who seek original art and those who collect prints.
"People buy prints," he said, "because they're affordable and decorative, and they don't want to invest a lot of money in decoration. Others collect original art as they would any other collectible, because it has value. You can buy a Stobart print for $300 or his painting in the gallery for $300,000. If you love that painting but you don't have or want to spend that much, a print is certainly a viable alternative. It all depends on your intent and economic commitment."
Jinishian also cites two approaches to presenting nautical art in the gallery setting. "If you've established yourself in the gallery business within a well-defined genre such as floral art," he said, "bringing in marine art wouldn't make sense. Of course, you can specialize in it. Or, if you're looking to round out your offering, there's no question marine art could work well. Just like the major publishers, marine art may not be their biggest offering, but it balances it out."
A lone sailboat, a single schooner, a solitary steamship might not have much impact in an eclectic gallery. However, a fleet of nautical images could make a statement that would capture the attention of this niche audience.
"In our experience," said Kirk, "it is always good to show a series of images. A collection has more impact and gives the buyer a choice. If you show just one, the consumer likely will buy just one or will continue shopping to look for more variety. However, if you display a series, you likely will sell the companion pieces."
With the grand diversity of artists at the helm--Michael Blaser's steamships or Christopher Blossom's traditional schooner to name a few--nautical art, as restless and dynamic as the sea, will continue to navigate the uncharted waters of a wide-open genre. Guided by the ebb and flow of the market, their future lies in following the maritime tradition of keeping the wind at their back and sailing onward.