Whaling painting returns to New London
New London — A dramatic whaling scene removed from Citizens Bank on Eugene O'Neill Drive before its closure last month will return to the city for permanent exhibit at the Custom House Maritime Museum, director Susan Tamulevich said Monday.
Tamulevich said the 1929 painting by the late Lars Thorsen of Noank will be unveiled Wednesday during a National Maritime Day celebration at the museum, when Citizens Bank officially donates the whaling scene.
Tamulevich, backed by Mayor Michael Passero, had been pushing for the return of the painting since its removal in February as Citizens consolidated its operations to a new location off Howard Street. But until a couple of weeks ago, she said, she didn't think it was going to happen.
"I really was quite shocked and happy," she said.
Tamulevich said a reporter for The Providence Journal finally got Citizens Bank to acknowledge that some of the items from New London had to be returned to Mystic Seaport because they apparently had been on loan. But when she called the Seaport, officials there said the painting she desired was not among the returned items.
When she called the bank to again request the painting, Tamulevich said, she was told "we'll see," because other museums might also want it. Then, just two weeks ago, a bank official called and told her about the donation.
The 49-inch by 56-inch oil painting arrived Thursday, she said, and will be hung in the main gallery at the museum.
"It depicts the whole drama — men in small boats, the danger, the immensity of the whale, the power of the sea — in one image," she said in an email at the time.
Thorsen, a native of Norway, was a self-taught painter who reportedly had gone on four expeditions to Cape Horn by the time he turned 20. He held a succession of jobs, from mess-boy to sail-maker to rigger, and in his later years won art prizes, became a member of the Mystic Art Colony and completed more than 80 works as part of the Works Progress Administration's FDR-era Federal Arts Project, according to an online biography.
He died in 1952 in New London, which had been one of the nation's whaling capitals during the 19th century. His paintings now generally sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, according to an online search.
"Whalers were merchant seamen; their hard work and dedication built New London into a prosperous 19th-century port," Tamulevich said. "The painting will become the centerpiece of the museum's whaling exhibition."
She said Hugh Peltz, head of corporate services, procurement and property services for Citizens Bank, will make the presentation during the New London Maritime Society's annual National Maritime Day luncheon starting at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. The luncheon, at the former U.S. Custom House at 150 Bank St., is free and open to the public, and it follows a noontime commemoration at Fort Trumbull.
National Maritime Day is held May 22 to honor the first successful steam-powered transoceanic voyage undertaken by New London Captain Moses Rogers, who set sail from Savannah, Georgia, in 1819 — 200 years ago.
"The gift is a generous act to celebrate, especially on National Maritime Day, an event that honors the nation's merchant marine," according to the press release.
The Citizens Bank at 63 Eugene O'Neill Drive, now vacant, had been the home of several artifacts from New London's whaling past, including a model ship and even nautical-themed trash cans. One of the building's larger paintings, the Thorsen work that apparently had been a holdover from the days when the building housed the New England Savings Bank, depicted the harpooning of a whale, with one boat upended and larger whaling ships in the background.
It is unclear how long the Thorsen painting had been at the location, but a 1948 article in The Day noted an exhibition of nine works by the "well known marine painter" that occurred in the lobby of the Savings Bank of New London, which occupied the building at the time.
Tamulevich sent a letter to Citizens Bank earlier this year inquiring about objects in the building related to New London and offering a space at the Custom House Maritime Museum for the painting. She noted New London's long association with seafaring industry and its reputation as the "Whaling City."
"These artifacts and artworks are part of New London's cultural heritage, and nowhere else will they be as appreciated or as meaningful," she said.
Mayor Passero sent his own letter shortly afterward, endorsing the Maritime Society as an excellent home for the painting.
Tamulevich said several residents spoke up about the Citizens Bank artifacts, including Brian McCarthy, a resident of the Bacon Hinkley Home on Pequot Avenue who was the first to suggest the maritime museum as an appropriate home.