The California lumber schooner 'Mary E. Russ', 1867 signed, dated and inscribed 'Joseph Lee. Painter. 1867' (lower left) oil on canvas 32 x 48in overall: 41 x 57in
PROVENANCE: Private collection, San Francisco, California Private collection, Cincinnati, Ohio
EXHIBITED: San Francisco and Los Angeles, California Historical Society.
Of the sixty known paintings by Joseph Lee, all are San Francisco subjects and more than three quarters of them are ship portraits of remarkable quality. Lee's portraits are of such accuracy, with every shroud, ratline and block exactly in place, that it is quite possible he worked directly from rigging plans. Old timers along the San Francisco waterfront used to say "you could rig a ship from one of Lee's pictures". Although considered the foremost portraitist of Pacific Coast ships during the 1860s and 70s, details regarding the life of this important San Francisco marine artist remain a mystery. Lee's colorful works have a strong folk art appeal and he has often been considered as the "James Bard of the West". Lee's paintings were frequently commissioned directly by ship masters and were hung in their cabins. It was not unusual that upon restoration of many of the artist's works, layers of salt from many voyages required removal. Along with his contemporary William A. Coulter, Lee's paintings are an important factor in creating an accurate record of the ships and places of the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th century. This fine portrait of the lumber schooner 'Mary E. Russ' is the earliest known painting by Joseph Lee. The sharply defined portrayal of her rig and deck layout attest to Lee's almost photographic style. The intense color of the vessel's hull and the strong blue green sea are further trademarks of this biographically obscure marine master. As seen in all of Lee's ship portraits, the vessel is shown in a full portside view with all sail set. The background contains, in smaller scale, an American brig and three additional renderings of either the 'Mary E. Russ' or a schooner of the same class. Note the uncommon accuracy and detail shown in the schooner's rigging, one of Lee's most recognizable attributes. The 235 gross ton 'Mary E. Russ' was built in Eureka, California by Euphronius Cousins for the Russ Lumber Company. The schooner was 115 feet long with a beam of 32 feet and drew 9 1/2 feet of water. Throughout a long career she carried cargos of timber between San Diego and the northern lumber ports.