Portrait of John Paul Jones
Oil on panel,
17 x 16 inches
Inscribed, signed and dated on back of panel: No 627/ Painted by Robert Salmon/1828.
Painted in June 1828
Recorded: Salmon's Catalogue of Paintings, #627 in the pen and ink manuscript in the collection of the Boston Public Library, itself a transcript of a lost original
John Wilmerding, Robert Salmon, Painter of Ship & Shore (1971), pp. 26,33-34 and 90, illus. p. 26
Exhibited: DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1966, Robert Salmon, The First Major Exhibition, no. 35
Inscription in the Artist's Hand on the Reverse:
NOTE: In 1778, Captain Paul Jones (he didn't become commonly known as John Paul Jones until the 20th century), led a raid on Whitehaven, a British seaport on the Irish Sea. Born and bred in Kirkbean , a scant 20 nautical miles due north of Whitehaven on the Scottish side of Solway Firth, Jones returned to "home waters" in the first "invasion" of the British Isles in over 700 years. The raid was a shock to the psyche of the English: Jones was branded a pirate on the floor of Parliament, while at the same time he was hailed as a hero in the Congress on the other side of the Atlantic. Living in Whitehaven at the time was the young son of a Scottish silversmith, the future artist Robert Salmon.
By the 1820's, Paul Jones's reputation for villainy in England was unabated, while in his adopted homeland, the United States, his heroic achievements had all but disappeared from common memory. In England, the pulp fiction of the era called penny dreadfuls portrayed Jones as a dashing, but totally unscrupulous character. Because books like History of Paul Jones, the Pirate were widely read, his story became part of popular culture, so when Lord Byron published his epic poem The Corsair, everyone knew the main character was patterned on the life of the American captain.
At the same time, Robert Salmon had established himself as one of the most accomplished painters of maritime subjects in the British Isles. However, it was apparent to Salmon and other marine painters, who had always relied upon commissions, that their artistic future lay in the United States. Salmon decided to immigrate to the New World and in preparation for his departure in June of 1828, the artist painted the Portrait of the Corsair, John Paul Jones. In a colossal misjudgment of his future market, Salmon records in his catalogue of paintings that he painted the portrait "on spec": very much a part of his material culture and Romantic ethos of his time, Salmon painted a portrait redolent of the penny dreadfuls and written images by authors like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. He naturally assumed his "likeness" of Paul Jones would form a bond with the viewers in his future home. He could not know, having never been to America, that the memory of our greatest naval hero had effectively vanished.
Portrait of John Paul Jones is the only extant portrait by Salmon. In the second-hand 1881 transcript of Salmon's Catalogue of Paintings, this work is cited as the last painting the artist executed before he immigrated. It lists the work as "Portrait of Paull Gomes." Salmon was a poor speller whose j's and g's looked very similar. So it is not surprising that no Paul Gomes appears in the census records of Britain for 1821 or 1831, the censuses preceding and following the year this painting was executed.
Dr. John Wilmerding, one of the first scholars to publish on Robert Salmon's work, agrees that this work is a Romantic portrait of John Paul Jones.