FDR’s Naval Art Collection: History Captured on Canvas

By Paul M. Sparrow – Director, FDR Library

Franklin Roosevelt collected more than 5,000 maritime prints, paintings and etchings during his life. Some are still in his home Springwood, but most are in the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.  

You can see from this photo of his private study at the White House he liked to surround himself with his favorite paintings. Like his naval manuscripts and ship models, the paintings generally fall into three categories: Major battles; historic ships; or a connection to his family.  I have selected a few paintings to provide a glimpse into this remarkable collection.

There is one ship FDR loved above all others, the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, so we will start there. There are dozens of images of the Constitution in the collection but these two tell stories that illustrate why FDR was fascinated with this ship.

The first (MO 1941.3.185) depicts the battle during the War of 1812 in which the ship gained its nickname. After a ferocious exchange of cannon fire, the British ship, the HMS Guerriere, has been demasted and sits helplessly in the water while the Constitution is in position to deliver a final fatal broadside. The story goes that the cannon balls of the Guerriere bounced off the hard oak sides of the Constitution, and one of the crew called out “Her sides are made of IRON!”

 This is a large dramatic piece and if you look closely you can see American sailors preparing to board their prize. The artist is unknown but the painting probably dates from the mid-19th century.

The Constitution pursued by the English Squadron

The second one (MO 1969.30) was painted by Horatio G. Garcia in 1933, and was given to FDR by his cabinet as a birthday gift in 1935. It also depicts a famous, although less bombastic, encounter between Old Ironsides and the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. In this scene, just off the coast of New Jersey, the Constitution is becalmed. Captain Isaac Hull ordered the crew to man the lifeboats and row away from a squadron of five British ships which can be seen in the distance.

The chase went on for 57 hours before the Royal Navy finally gave up their pursuit. Less than a month later the Constitution sank the Guerriere. This painting hung in the hallway of FDR’s beloved Top Cottage home in Hyde Park.

FDR studied naval history from the time he was a young boy and was particularly interested in what is called “the age of fighting sail” roughly 1650 to 1865.  

The General Armstrong Surrounded by the British Fleet at Fayal, the Azores

This painting (MO 1941.3.189) of the privateer brig the General Armstrong is by one of the most famous artists represented in the collection, Emanuel Leutze. The well–known painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware was done by Leutze.  This battle took place on September 26, 1814 off the coast of the Azores. Captain Sam Chester Reid fought off the British Carnation and several smaller gunships. But when Reid realized he would not be able to escape he ordered the General Armstrong scuttled. You can see the crew fleeing in small boats as the smoking General Armstrong starts to go under. FDR purchased this painting in 1926 from the American Art Association for $150. It was prominently displayed in the White House while he was president.

Painting of the Engagement between the Frigates Chesapeake and Shannon

The USS Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794 – which created the U.S. Navy. She was a sister ship of the USS Constitution. This painting, (MO 1957.50) by an unknown artist, shows the Chesapeake under attack from the HMS Leopard in 1807 during the period when the Royal Navy frequently stopped and searched American ships and conscripted sailors they considered deserters – an act known as impressment.  When the American Captain refused to allow the British sailors to board the Chesapeake the Leopard opened fire. Unprepared for an attack the Chesapeake was badly damaged and had to surrender. The British boarded the ship and impressed four sailors. This attack outraged both the American public and President Thomas Jefferson and was a major factor leading to the outbreak of the War of 1812. 

Misty Morning

This gouache watercolor (MO 1948.41.10) is by George R. Bonfield, one of the foremost American maritime painters of the mid-19th century. It is somewhat unusual in that it is impossible to tell what ship it is. The title “Misty Morning” reveals little and the peaceful scene includes a U.S. warship firing a salute – to whom or why is unknown. The back story on this painting however is revealing of FDR’s generosity. During the 1920s, when FDR was a vice-president at the Fidelity and Deposit Company, he had ten maritime paintings hanging in his office. He also had a private law practice with Basil O’Connor, his personal attorney and close advisor, who would go on to become the head of the Warm Springs Foundation and the Red Cross. In 1933 when FDR moved into the White House he had all ten paintings sent to O’Connor as a gift. In 1947 O’Connor donated them to the FDR Library.

Another painting with a strong personal connection (MO 1969.72) is titled “In Tropic Seas Clipper Ship Channing – Owner Warren Delano Roosevelt – Period 1845.” It refers to FDR’s grandfather, who was named Warren Delano but was not a Roosevelt. It is signed by the artist, Capt. A. Axel, 1934.

Franklin Roosevelt liked first person accounts, whether in books, manuscripts, or art.

The Dellaware and Potomac Struck by a White Squall, in the Gulf of Lyons

This large dramatic oil painting (MO1957.46) of two ships struggling in an intense storm, was painted by J. G. Evans. The caption along the bottom reads “The Dellaware and Potomac, Struck by a White Squall, in the GULF of LYONS, a Faithful Picture Painted by an eye witness.” Crew members can be seen bunched together on the windward side of the ship as waves crash over the bow.

Evans served in the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron from 1835-1838, and he produced 11 paintings of the Delaware. FDR displayed this one in the White House Library.

Xanthus Russell Smith, a Captains Clerk in the Navy, is famous for his paintings and illustrations of the Civil War.      

Rebel Ironclad Merrimac Destroying the US Frigate Congress

FDR purchased this one (MO 1957.44) from Newman McGiff in 1922, for $42.  He wrote to McGiff saying “Glad to have… Much better than I thought!”  The CSS Virginia (Merrimack) is firing on the USS Congress, which is in flames, its crew escaping in a lifeboat. The USS Cumberland can be seen sinking in the background. Roosevelt liked it so much that several months later he asked McGiff to send him another painting by Smith of the USS Kearsarge sinking the CSS Alabama. (MO 1957.45) These two painting can be seen in the photograph above, displayed next to the Delaware.

USS Kearsarge Sinking the Alabama

The two iron clad warships of the Civil War, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) held a special place of interest for FDR. There are more than 50 images of these two ships in the collection.

This full color facsimile print (MO 1941.3.206) of a painting by Julian Davidson was in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. It depicts the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, the Monitor’s cannon blazing and smoke billowing. The two steam powered combatants, low and dark in the water, stand in stark contrast to the sailing ship in the distance.  Many historians consider this the most important naval battle of the Civil War, even though there was no clear victor, because it marked the end of the age of fighting sail.

This colorful oil painting (MO 1970.89) of the Coriolanus, an iron hulled barque, has a connection to another President. It was given to FDR by Donald W. Douglas of the Douglas Aircraft Company to be proudly displayed in the first specially designed Presidential airplane, a Douglas C-54 known as the Sacred Cow. Roosevelt flew in it only once, during the Yalta Conference with Stalin and Churchill in early 1945.  It was still in the plane when FDR died a few months later and hung there until 1950, when President Harry Truman gave it to the FDR Library.

President Grover Cleveland is featured in this original wash drawing (MO 1970.130) by Rufus F. Zogbaum. Cleveland is standing in the back of the Presidential launch lifting his hat as he reviews the fleet in New York Harbor in April, 1893.

This piece was given to FDR in 1939 by Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s son. The ship on the far left, the USS Dolphin, was used by FDR for personal transport when he was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. While aboard he became good friends with its Captain, William Leahy, who would become Fleet Admiral and FDR’s Chief of Staff during World War II. During Franklin Roosevelt’s service as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy he befriended the artist Charles E.  Ruttan, a Lieutenant, who was the official Navy artist documenting seaplanes and other naval actions. Many of his illustrations are part of the official historical archives of the Navy. In 1918 FDR crossed the Atlantic in the USS Dyer to inspect naval operations in Europe. After his return he commissioned Ruttan to capture on canvas his first stop in Ponta Delgado, in the Azores. 

USS Dyer Painting

FDR loved this painting (MO 1942.237) and it had a prominent place above the fireplace in the White House Oval Study and has been on display in his study at the FDR Library since it first opened.

After World War I ended, the German fleet surrendered to the Allies at the British Naval base in Scapa Flow. This was a very tense and complicated situation and the German’s assumed that at some point their fleet would be released back to Germany. But the British had different ideas, and when the German Admiralty discovered the Royal Navy’s plan to keep the ships, they secretly ordered the fleet scuttled.

FDR commissioned this painting “Surrender of the German Fleet to the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow” (MO 2002.6.4) from the renowned artist B.F. Gribble in 1919. Gribble was one of the few civilians to witness this historic moment. The painting was featured prominently in the White House residence. A larger mural size (5’ x 7’) version of this scene, also painted by Gribble, originally hung in FDR’s office at the Navy Department and now hangs in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.

The final painting in this brief tour of FDR’s collection is a small and unknown watercolor painted in 1944 by Captain C.F. Morgan. There are not many images from World War II in the collection.

The simple painting (MO 1955.57) shows the USS Augusta entering Placentia Bay in the summer of 1941, flying the Presidential flag. It was purchased from the artist by John Winant, while he was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain in 1944.  FDR was aboard the Augusta for his historic first meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a meeting which led to the Atlantic Charter.   This painting came into the collection as part of Winant’s papers. While it lacks the grand scale and artistic genius of Gribble’s work, it has something FDR prized above all else: it captures a moment in history that mattered.

You can see more of the Roosevelt art collection and many other artifacts here .