California’s foremost 19th-century marine painter, Gideon Jacques Denny is best known for his paintings of ships and scenes of San Francisco’s booming commercial harbor. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he sailed small craft on the Chesapeake Bay as a youth and then moved to California via Milwaukee with his family as part of the Gold Rush in 1849. In San Francisco, he worked as a teamster along the waterfront for two years before returning to Milwaukee to study art with Samuel Marsden Brookes, who, at that time, painted portraits. In 1857, Denny returned to California, where he established himself as a painter. He was active in arts organizations until his untimely death from malaria.
Denny’s enthusiasm for all things maritime is evident in this painting of Clear Lake, the largest natural lake wholly in California, which here includes a prominently placed depiction of the wood-burning steamer City of Lakeport. First launched in 1874 by Captain Richard Floyd, a Lake County entrepreneur, it was the largest steamer on Clear Lake, running daily trips between Lakeport and Lower Lake until 1904, when its route changed.
The tranquil mood and the emphasized horizontality of Denny’s composition manifest the artist’s awareness of the light-filled marines by East Coast Luminists, particularly Fitz Hugh Lane. Denny’s detailed rendering of the steamer itself suggests the lasting influence of his training as a portraitist and firsthand knowledge of ship construction.