Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur

Exhibition Dates:  April 10th, 2014 – February 2015

Exhibition Catalog: Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur
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Support for this exhibition was provided by the Ladera Foundation.

Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur explored Russell’s (1804-1885) self-training and subsequent work targeting an audience with specialized knowledge of whaling. Russell descended from one of New Bedford’s oldest whaling families. His early career showed auspicious signs of a common destiny marked with financial success through whaling, as he owned shares in ten vessels between 1829 and 1833 while employed in the family firm of Seth Russell & Sons. Russell eventually became one of the first directors of the Marine Bank of New Bedford and even speculated in real estate. However, Russell’s good fortune abruptly ended when he fell victim to the Jacksonian banking crisis of the 1830s. Several banks called in their loans, forcing Russell to liquidate his holdings. As a result, Russell held no interest in any vessels or real estate by 1835, and he began to sink deeper into debt.

With a wife and three children, what was there for an enterprising young man from New Bedford to do but go to sea? Russell left his family behind and signed aboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford bound to the Indian and Pacific Oceans on a whaling voyage from 1841 to 1845. During forty-two months aboard the Kutusoff, Russell learned the details of whaleships and whaling while he trained himself to sketch and paint these subjects in detail.

The only public record of Russell training himself aboard the Kutusoff appeared in his obituary printed in the New Bedford Evening Standard on March 4, 1885. However this exhibition unveiled recent research corroborating the notion that Russell trained himself aboard the Kutusoff three years before the moving panorama project. Various sources, including logbooks, family records, and newspaper accounts, retell the story of Russell’s artistic development. The exhibition also featureed artifacts related to the moving panorama and works by Russell’s contemporaries in addition to Russell’s own lithographs and paintings. The Whaling Museum owns in its vast collection Russell’s first two commissioned ship portraits. Many of the Russell paintings were never seen by the public prior to this exhibition.

Russell’s complete body of work consists of over one hundred paintings and a dozen lithographs resulting from specific commissions or produced simply as speculative objects for general sale. The Whaling Museum owns several examples of Russell’s lithographs and over thirty paintings, ranging from ship portraits and whaling scenes to depictions of everyday life. Each of Russell’s finely detailed works shares a common thread related to New Bedford and its whaling industry. A complete record of the Whaling Museum’s Benjamin Russell collection appears in a catalog that accompanyed the exhibition.

Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur offered a fresh look at Russell’s art from the perspective of his social and economic milieu. The exhibition demonstrated that Russell acquired his artistic training and technical knowledge of whaling while aboard the Kutusoff.  Russell harnessed this knowledge and skill during the height of the New Bedford Whaling Industry, resulting in several artistic and entrepreneurial enterprises. Russell produced an impressive collection of artwork that documented the fabric of his time and place in history.


RELATED PROJECT: Restoration of the World’s Longest Painting

Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington’s Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World (1848) at eight feet tall and 1,295 feet long is likely the world’s largest original painting. A highly descriptive work of art and significant historical document, the moving panorama depicts the whaling industry’s expansion of American commercial hegemony throughout the world by tracking the voyage of a single New Bedford whaleship.