“Capt. Cook Cast a Way on Cape Cod 1802”

This 16″x14″ painting is one of three oil painting by Michele Felice Corne held at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.  It depicts the wreck of the ship Ulysses, which ran aground on Cape Cod in February 1802. It is an iconic (and rare) early American maritime painting.

As to be expected, there are numerous discrepancies between accounts of the wreck published in contemporary newspapers and the scene imagined by Corne (he didn’t actually see the wreck). Here is an excerpt from a letter written by an officer from the Ulysses and published in The United States Oracle:

At 10 o’clock in the evening, the Ulysses struck the bar on the northern pitch of Cape Cod. And thumped very heard—the violence and force of the winds and waves soon carried away the bowsprit and foremast, and there were soon followed with the loss of the main-mast, and mizenmast, the boats and everything on deck. The crew fled to the cabin for progection—the ship only lay upon the bar for a few minutes, drifted over, and soon struck the main shore—here they remained in the ship all night, in the greatest anxiety and distress, expecting every moment would be their last, as the ship bilged, and filled with water, which came over the cabin floor; they fortunately however were enabled to remain by the wreck till morning. When the tide left the ship, and they all got on shore, and soon got assistance from some of the inhabitants of Provincetown.

No need to pick apart an image never intended to capture the “reality” of a particular shipwreck. It’s a genre piece–a classic shipwreck image. [I’m on dangerous art-folk’s ground and far removed from the staid texts of historians, so I’ll cut any analysis short there!]

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Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture

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