Where Art and Life Collided

Published March 24, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

He was not in the heroic mold. He looked like the chief cashier of a small bank.

Actually Samuel Ward Stanton was an artist, though not the sort you would see, masked and wearing a shepherd's tunic, at the Art Students Ball.

Stanton was a solid man, a family man, 42 years old, not rich but getting along in the world, a trustee of his Presbyterian church, owner of a home in New York and a vacation home in Bradenton.

He seemed the last person in the world to _ suddenly, almost on a whim _ book passage on the Titanic.

Though he had studied art in Paris and New York, there was no rebellion in Stanton, no flamboyance. In the first decade of the 20th century, when Picasso was painting his disjointed, wrenchingly beautiful figures and Matisse was all but reinventing color, Samuel Ward Stanton was making a name and a comfortable living with painfully accurate portraits of steamships. Every detail was accurate; only the American flags were slightly oversized.

It was a commission for such portraiture that took him to Europe in February 1912. The Hudson River Day Line, for which Stanton had done advertising posters and murals, had hired him to make a portrait of its new steamship, named for renowned upstate New York writer Washington Irving. The artist was also to paint murals for the ship's lounges and dining rooms of scenes from Irving's works, many of which were set in Spain.

Stanton visited the Alhambra and other Spanish sites prominent in Irving's writings to prepare sketches for the murals. Then he went to Paris for a few classes at the prestigious Julien Academy. A visit to London was to follow, then a return to the United States on the French steamer Baltic, which ultimately, ironically, would rush to pick up survivors from the Titanic.

Stanton never made it to London. In Paris he ran into Francis Davis Millet, 65, a prominent American artist who had befriended the younger man when they first met at the Chicago Exposition in 1893.

On two subsequent occasions, Millet did not befriend Stanton. In 1908, Stanton blocked in steamboats on murals Millet was executing at the Baltimore Custom House, but Millet never gave Stanton the credit he had promised.

In Paris in 1912, Millet did something that turned out considerably more unfriendly. He talked Stanton into canceling his reservation on the Baltic and joining him on a wonderful new ship that was about to make its first voyage _ and, by the way, the ship was considered unsinkable.

The two artists boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg and proceeded to their cabins, Millet's in first class, Stanton's in second. That is the last real news we have of Stanton. He and Millet perished in the disaster. Stanton's body was never recovered.

Though a New York family, the Stantons often vacationed in Bradenton, where they owned property. In 1884, when Stanton was 14, his father moved the family to their vacation house and established a steamboat route (with a ship he owned called Manatee) to Port Tampa, St. Petersburg and back to Braidentown, as it was then spelled.

The steamboat route didn't make money, and the family returned to New York. At 18, Stanton went to work as a reporter and illustrator for Seaboard, a weekly nautical journal. Over the years, he worked up to editor in chief, bought the journal, changed its name to the Nautical Gazette and sold it in 1903 and moved his family back to Bradenton, where he hoped to become a full-time artist.

His plans did not work out. He built a home on property his family still owned, lived in it with his wife and three children for less than a year, then was enticed back to New York with an offer to edit Nautical Gazette again. (He sold the Bradenton house, which was later razed and now is the site of the Central Library.)

Back in New York, Stanton continued to build his reputation as a nautical artist. Hundreds of his sketches and drawings were published. Half a century after his death, Stanton's daughter Elizabeth published a series of finely executed booklets of her father's pen and ink drawings of steam vessels. The booklets inspired several exhibitions of his drawings and paintings. His descendants hold most of the extant works, but certain institutions, particularly the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va., have collections open to the public.

Elizabeth was 13 when her father died. They had been especially close. She would come to his studio to watch him work. Typically, he would be in a business suit with necktie neatly knotted. In 1990, shortly before her death, she gave this description of him to an interviewer:

"He was a devoted and delightful family man. He was a hard-working man of great self-discipline, admired by all his friends, never drank alcohol in all his life, smoked cigars only in his last year. He was a genial man with a delightful sense of humor. . . . He had no interest in sports, played the piano well and attended the opera regularly."

Research by Times artist-historian RON PROUTY and WILLIAM A. FOX, a maritime historian and naval architect from Williamburg, Va.