James Bard was born in 1815 in Chelsea in New York City with a twin brother, John. He was a self-taught marine artist with a keen interest in steamboats and small sailing vessels. James and John worked closely together.
In 1827, 12-year-old twin brothers James and John Bard jointly painted their first ship portrait for Cornelius Vanderbilt. and consequently formed a partnership in 1831. Together they recorded many of the important ships passing through the Long Island Sound and Hudson River. The accurate observances in these paintings are still quite important to historians of navigation. Their collaborative paintings, over 350 in all, were most often signed J. & J. Bard.
In 1850 James’ brother John abandon the partnership for unknown reasons. James continued painting quite successfully due to the increase in shipbuilding throughout the 1850s. Various forms of signature and address appear in the lower right corner of Bard’s paintings as an invitation to prospective buyers to visit his studio. James Bard completed over 4,000 paintings, the last dated 1890 just seven years before his death. The National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C. exhibited Bard’s retrospective in 1987.
After 1865, James preferred a more restrained style, and is said to have produced thousands of ship portraits, creating a detailed pictorial inventory of the many prominent vessels navigating New York Harbor. The paintings record a vibrant period in maritime history when steamboats or paddle wheelers – James Bard’s favorite subject – were used increasingly for both commercial shipping and pleasure excursions. The paintings were most often commissioned by ship owners, captains, agents and builders, and they were frequently displayed in commercial settings such as offices or taverns near the waterfront.
Bard paintings also evoke nostalgia for a less complicated and more optimistic era. John B. Hightower of The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia says, “With splashes of water, shiny brass finials, and richly colored flags and pennants, the Bards captured in paint the essence of a particular time in history when ships held dominance on our country’s waterways.” The Mariner’s Museum has the country’s largest collection of Bard paintings.
The untutored quality of the Bard watercolors and oil paintings, however, should not obscure their merit as works of art. While the paintings have a certain naive quality, they also attest to the Bard’s attention to detail, precise and extensive knowledge of boats, skill as draftsmen, and creativity in adapting certain conventions for ship portraiture. With only a few exceptions, ships in Bard paintings are portrayed moving from right to left with flags unfurled so that a ship’s name is prominently displayed. They are most often rendered in bright colors and centered against identifiable regional landscapes with water in the foreground.
Works by the Bards, particularly James Bard, have fetched record prices at auction.