Bo Bartlett, “The Lobster Wars”  collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bo Bartlett, “The Lobster Wars” collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Life imitates art. Or so it might seem with Bo Bartlett's monumental painting (80 x 112 inches) "The Lobster Wars," completed in 2007. Two years later, in the summer of 2009, stories appeared in the national press about a territorial dispute over the right to set lobster traps in waters just off Matinicus, Maine's most remote inhabited island. One man was shot in the neck on the town dock in front of numerous witnesses; he survived, but was seriously injured. The parties involved were rival families, well known to each other (in fact, related by marriage) as well as to the subject of Bartlett's painting, Ronnie, or "R. K.," Ames. Ames and his family have lived on and fished off of Matinicus for generations. Although Bartlett's painting predates the events of that fateful day in 2009, the artist was keenly aware of the "lobster wars" being fought up and down the Maine coast, especially in recent years when diminishing catches strained wallets and frayed nerves.

"The Lobster Wars" fits squarely into a long tradition of American history and narrative painting. Bartlett's nearly 7-by-10-foot canvas betrays the legacy of heroic images by such 19th-century luminaries as Benjamin West, John Trumbull and John Singleton Copley and stretching even further to the epic mural cycles of Renaissance and Baroque artists. Bartlett cites other sources of inspiration, including the psychologically penetrating portraits of Thomas Eakins and swashbuckling illustrations by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, all figures closely associated with Philadelphia, where Bartlett studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Bartlett is a gifted filmmaker, and cinematic scale, dramatic license and narrative content are central to how the artist conceives and executes his massive paintings.

Although "The Lobster Wars" addresses contemporary, topical issues in a way that is more direct than many of Bartlett's other large-scale works, it is pure invention in its details. The slatted wooden lobster trap on the stern of the boat is an antique, a type now obsolete in the trade and recycled (or purpose built) for college dorms and suburban coffee tables. Ames may have a red staysail to help steer his vessel in choppy seas and may even have adorned it with a skull and crossbones like a modern incarnation of Long John Silver from N. C. Wyeth's "Treasure Island," although flying the pirate insignia is still frowned upon by the U.S. Coast Guard. But it is also possible that Bartlett invented this element of the composition as a wry commentary on Ames' and his trade's tenuous relationship to authority, including their self-imposed territorial rules governing Maine lobstering. That Ames might choose to fly the flag to entertain (or startle) tourists and well-heeled yachtsmen venturing out to Matinicus to find "the real Maine" is an equally plausible explanation for its presence.

Perhaps the most telling detail of the composition is the plume of smoke on the horizon at lower left. The artist seems to be comparing the gravitas of Maine's lobster wars on the fringes of the North Atlantic to important historical naval battles from Actium to Trafalgar to the Battle of Midway. And for lobstermen in waters off Matinicus and neighboring coastal communities, where the underlying conflict between nature and culture imperils a treasured way of life, this analogy resonates. Bartlett's heroic painting plays at the edges of fiction and humor to convey more fundamental, and deadly serious, truths affecting real lives.