Journal

Late Summer Fish Catch

08.22.2016

Pair of fish portraits

Although we have not been fishing in actual waters this month, we have, as always, been trolling for antiques. Our most recent catch in the fish category is this appealing pair of oil on canvas portraits of a landlocked salmon and a brook trout. The body shapes of the salmon and brook trout are fairly accurate, as is their coloration. They are slightly naïve renditions rather than perfect anatomical representations, indicating that the artist was not academically trained.

fish close-ups

Both fish are shown hooked in realistic ways – on a side edge of the mouth for the salmon and the bottom edge of the mouth for the brook trout – situations that the artist had likely experienced firsthand.

close-ups of hooked fish

The fish are painted on a faux birch bark background, which is not an uncommon treatment for fish still life paintings, such as these two by Walter Steward from our past inventory.

Walter Steward trout and pickerel paintings

We have also found fish portraits painted directly on birch bark, such as the trout below.

trout painting on birch bark

Another fish/birch bark association we’ve encountered is commemorative silhouettes of actual fish traced and cut from birch bark, such as the one below that memorializes a fish caught on the Tobique River in New Brunswick in the 1940s.

birch bark trout silhouette

A much earlier birch bark trout silhouette was made by Percival Baxter (1876-1969), the 53rd Governor of Maine and after whom Baxter State Park is named, when he was just seven years old.

Trout silhouette by Percival Baxter

The text on the fish reads: “Speckled Trout (Salmo Fontinalis) Weight: 8 lbs, Caught at Toothakers Cove, Cupsuptic Lake, June 3rd, 1884 by Percival Proctor Baxter, Aged seven years. This is a correct outline of the fish. Guide Jerry Ellis Rangeley City, ME” (from collections of Baxter State Park; mainememorynetwork.net)

There are a few possible reasons that artists and anglers gravitate to birch bark for freshwater fish silhouettes and backgrounds. First, it is a material that is readily available near the habitats where the fish are caught. Also, the white surface helps to highlight the shape and stunning colors of fish such as brook trout and salmon. Finally, birch bark can serve as a platter for resting fish on before or after they’re cleaned at a campsite. The contemporary photo below shows how a fisherman used birch bark in this way. Fish artists, who were often anglers themselves, likely used birch bark in the field which inspired them to recreate such tableaus in their studios.

fish displayed on birch bark

(from grousers.blogspot.com)

These fish paintings date to circa 1890, and are in their original, untouched condition.

salmon painting front and back   trout painting front back

The oak frames are also original to the paintings, although they may have been cleaned and touched up at some point.

oak frame close-up

We have made some assumptions about the artist, but we do not know his or her exact identity. Each painting is signed in the lower right corner with the monogram “E.M.H.” underlined with a fish hook – another indication that the artist was an angler. Such a distinctive monogram gives us hope that we will someday encounter it on another painting and perhaps sleuth out the full name and biography of the artist. For now, we assume that these paintings originated in Maine, as that is one of the few locations where anglers could, and still can, catch both landlocked salmon and brook trout on the same fishing trip.

artist's signature

We close with a word about the decorative impact of these paintings. Their size is just right for displaying as a pair – at a framed dimension of 12.25″ x 22.25″ each, they have a distinctive presence without dominating a wall when placed space side-by-side.

fish paintings on display

The paintings also pair well with rustic furniture and other sporting art that are classic elements of Adirondack style interiors which aim to remind us of our connections to nature. As these fish perhaps once reminded E.M.H. of enjoyable hours plying northern waters with a rod, so, too, may they bring thoughts of happy days in the outdoors to a new owner.

sporting art in rustic setting

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