Artist's descendants attend whale-painting unveiling

New London — The granddaughter and great-grandson of maritime painter Lars Thorsen said Wednesday they were delighted to hear that the artist's whaling scene, having hung for years in the Citizens Bank building on Eugene O'Neill Drive, would not be leaving the Whaling City.

In fact, it was just about to be unveiled at the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street as a permanent exhibit as Mike Boucher of Groton and his parents, Ruth and Ronald "Lefty" Boucher of Gales Ferry, stood waiting to see the piece for the first time in a while.

"It's like Christmas," Mike said as he waited across the room from the fabric-draped painting. "It's tempting to look at the gift early."

The dramatic whaling painting was a gift from Citizens Bank to the maritime museum, prodded by public outcry. It was one of the New London-related historical artifacts that people feared would be removed from the city upon the closure of the bank building last month as Citizens consolidated operations to a new locale off Howard Street.

Thanks to the persistence of museum Director Susan Tamulevich, the 49-inch by 56-inch oil painting now holds a prominent spot in the main gallery of the former U.S. Custom House.

"This is a wonderful piece of whaling history that really belongs in this New London community," said Hugh Peltz, head of corporate services, procurement and property services for Citizens Bank, just before the unveiling before about 50 people.

As he and Tamulevich lifted the cloth covering the 1929 Thorsen painting, guests gave a hearty clap as one member of the audience exclaimed, "Oh wow. Nice!"

Tamulevich thanked Citizens Bank as well as the community that stood behind keeping the painting in New London.

"It will be the centerpiece of our whaling exhibit," she said.

Peltz had said in a brief interview before the unveiling that the Thorsen painting had never actually left New London. It had been removed to an office within the building, he said, at the request of some bank patrons.

"The main thing is it's staying in New London," he added.

The Thorsen descendants who attended Wednesday's National Maritime Day luncheon said they had seen the artist's paintings at Mystic Seaport, but had never seen this particular work in person, only in a 1977 calendar put out by the New England Savings Bank.

"Its absolutely wonderful," Ruth Boucher said.

Son Mike said Thorsen, after the original artist died, is believed to have finished two large murals of a seal hunt that presumably still grace the Citizens Bank building.

"It's not well-known that he did that," Mike said.

Mike said his great-grandfather turned to painting after he hurt his back.

"He was a real seaman first," Mike said. "We went to sea first when he was 12 in his dad's steamboat to Iceland. He just loved being at sea."

He also was famed for his rope work, Mike said, and as a rigger on boats in Mystic knew all kinds of exotic knots. He was so good that, even when he became too infirm to climb the rigging, boatsmen would haul him up in a chair to do his handiwork.

"He loved going down to the shipyard to work," Mike said. "He was just very attached to the sea."

l.howard@theday.com

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