Master of the Seascape Christopher Blossom

The Returning Pilot

Christopher Blossom has dreamed of tall wooden ships his whole life.

Enchanted by their mystique, he has watched the great vessels wend in and out of ports near his home in coastal Connecticut. He’s studied the lore of cutters, frigates, men-of-war, schooners, and other craft, and he’s brought their dramatic stories to life. A sailor for nearly as long as he can remember, Blossom grew up, too, around legendary people considered the tall ships of their own time — illustrators who painted the visual narratives of American life and history for the popular magazines of their day.

For Blossom, counted today among the greatest marine artists of his generation, those esteemed illustrators included his own late father, David Blossom, grandad Earl Blossom, and a broad circle of friends whose resonant work resides in museums and prominent personal collections. “Landing assignments with The Saturday Evening Post was considered the most prestigious, and winning the cover was a huge achievement,” Blossom says. “When I was young, I didn’t realize just how big it was for people of my father’s and grandfather’s eras. So many of my friends were the children of great illustrators, and when their parents’ work appeared in the popular magazines you saw at newsstands, you didn’t think about the fact that millions of people were seeing those pictures around the world.”

No one is more familiar with Blossom’s legacy than J. Russell Jinishian, owner of an eponymous art gallery in Fairfield, Connecticut, that represents the biggest names in contemporary marine and sporting art. Jinishian authored a book, Bound for Blue Water: Contemporary American Marine Art, that chronicles the best painters of the last 50 years. He puts Blossom at the very top.

“You have to understand that Chris is part of a very unusual lineage. The sons and daughters of most reputable artists tend to become anything but artists. Chris is third-generation, and his work sets the standard,” Jinishian says. “I liken the Blossoms to the Wyeth family [N.C., Andrew, and Jamie] in terms of talent and dedication to craft. I can’t think of anyone else in a third-generation art family who has risen to the top of the field, as Chris has, in both marine art and as a plein-air painter.”

U.S. Brig Porpoise Transiting Deception Pass, June 1841

Blossom’s portrayals of near-mythic ships have earned him favorable comparisons to master marine painters John Stobart and Montague Dawson. A prime example of Blossom’s talent is a piece titled U.S. Brig Porpoise Transiting Deception Pass, June 1841. It portrays the good ship Porpoise finding its way through coastal waters around the San Juan Islands near Seattle, a course purported to be perilous and unnavigable. Blossom puts the viewer into a fateful scene that proved the premise wrong.

Striking is the calming tranquility of the painting, summoning emotions in the viewer driven as much by the effect of color and light as by the setting and subject. Indeed, Blossom uses narratives to pique our attention, but it is his command of his medium that cements a sensual connection. His paintings read visually as places we somehow recognize in our minds’ eyes. “What I am trying to paint is a particular kind of atmosphere and mood that comes through in the way you present light,” he says, noting that it might be a sanguine sunset or a storm with high seas and muted illumination. “Mood is everything. It doesn’t matter where or when in terms of an exact place. The sensation you feel is universal, and that’s what gives it veracity.” This is also why, critics say, Blossom’s paintings evince a sense of timelessness.

“What I am trying to paint is a particular kind of atmosphere and mood that comes through in the way you present light.”

Born in 1956, Blossom, perhaps surprisingly, had no inclination to paint during his early teenage years. His passion was sailing. Still, as a youngster, he posed in costumes for paintings made by illustration icons, including Harold von Schmidt, a noted Post illustrator who then was in the final years of his life. “Von Schmidt would have these big Western-style barbecues every Fourth of July upstate in Connecticut,” remembers Blossom, “and many great illustrators and their families would go there to eat and shoot off fireworks.”

Von Schmidt died in Westport, Connecticut, in 1982. During his prime, he was a contemporary of Norman Rockwell and John Clymer. And he had ­solid friendships with N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, and Dean Cornwell, prized students of Howard Pyle, considered the godfather of the Golden Age of Illustration. Many of Pyle’s protégés had pieces published in the Post.

View from Smith’s Cove, Gloucester

Blossom’s grandfather Earl (1891–1970) had joined the Post’s stable of go-to illustrators when Pete Martin, whom he had known in Chicago, was named the magazine’s art director. Under tight deadlines, Earl Blossom delivered paintings that illustrated fictional potboilers, a Post hallmark. Later, Earl Blossom became a star with Collier’s, and its art director there once told a reporter, “He’s a masterful artist. You never have to tell him what to do.”

Such creativity was passed down through the Blossom clan. Chris Blossom’s dad, David (1927–1995), also completed illustrations for the Post, though he is most recognized perhaps for his movie posters, especially those featuring Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone “spaghetti Westerns” The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; A Fistful of Dollars; and For a Few Dollars More. He also did a tremendous number of book covers and was known for doing Outdoor Life covers.

Young Chris and his brothers, David and Peter, got to know illustrators like Paul Calle, Clymer, Tom Lovell, and others who literally lived next door. Next to Rockwell, Clymer was one of the most prolific Post cover artists ever, and later, in the late 1980s after he had resettled in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he told me that he considered Blossom a promising talent to watch.

Although Blossom was raised with his father constantly working behind the easel, the idea of making painting a career didn’t readily enter his mind until he was nearly out of high school. When Blossom did start to draw and paint, the combination of innate talent and insight absorbed through exposure to the giants of pictorial painting turned him into something of a wunderkind. He was a student at the Parsons School of Design. At age 20, he won a scholarship in a national competition sponsored by the Society of Illustrators.

“The simple fact is that he has a way of seeing the world that is different from other artists.”

Blossom’s father had earlier introduced his son to maritime painter John Stobart, a transplant from England, and they became friends. It was not uncommon for them to stop by Stobart’s studio and see what vivid paintings he was working on.

During those impressionable years, Blossom became influenced by Impressionist painters John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Anders Zorn, and Russian Isaak Levitan. Famously, Levitan once observed, “What can be more tragic than to feel the boundlessness of the surrounding beauty and to be able to see in it its underlying mystery … and yet to be aware of your own inability to express these large feelings.”

Sunrise in the Golden Gate; Downeaster Benjamin F. Packard

Blossom’s work does not stand accused of suffering from repressed passion or an inability to make visible the unseen, though his play on the past is not sentimental or cheaply nostalgic.

For a time out of college, Blossom worked as a commercial illustrator, and the toils of having to work quickly, distilling the essence of subjects down to engaging visual statements, became a training ground just as it had for the Blossom elders.

For those who dismiss painters with a commercial ­illustration background as second-tier, Jinishian notes, “Michelangelo was an illustrator, and he invented, out of thin air, the scenes we equate with being the highest form of art. One of the criticisms people have used over time to try and diminish the talent of the great illustrators who worked for the Post and other magazines is the argument that, because they didn’t actually witness the scenes they painted, it was conjuring. But guess what: As far as anyone knows, Michelangelo never saw the moment of creation that he depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nobody ever said, ‘Mike, that’s a made-up thing you’re painting.’”

Some of Blossom’s paintings carry an intensity reflected in the stormy ocean conditions being portrayed, where textured effulgent waves are rising and falling, putting water over the gunwales. You can almost see the wind being tacked. Maybe the only things missing are an actual spray of sea salt blown into the viewer’s eyes, the briny smell of the cold Pacific, and the taste of ocean air on the tongue.

A decade ago, Blossom and his wife took a year off and sailed up and down the Eastern seaboard from Maine to the Bahamas and back. He produced a stack of plein-air paintings along the way and returned to his studio refreshed. “The power of nature is pretty awesome,” he says. “To assume that you can push the limits of risk and never get caught is a fallacy.”

Skippering boats on the open sea is exhilarating for Blossom because there’s a very small safety net, set within the overwhelming forces of nature. “The thing I find most interesting about cruising is the exhilaration of exploring and the self-sufficiency which requires that you troubleshoot problems, think things through, and adapt. Yes, we have better weather information, but you’re still on your own. You are independent and isolated in the way that an astronaut might be.”

It’s a metaphor, he notes, that can also be applied to painting. After years of winning other honors, his greatest achievement to date came in 2010, when he won the top prize at the Prix de West Exhibition in Oklahoma City for his painting Sunrise in the Golden Gate; Downeaster Benjamin F. Packard.

At Prix de West, across a span of years, Blossom prestigiously has received the coveted Robert Lougheed Award four times. The accolade is bestowed by fellow artists for best grouping of three or more paintings. (Lougheed was another illustrator who, early in his career, contributed to the Post before becoming a figure in Western art.)

While some say winning Prix de West marked Blossom’s formal arrival in the pantheon of contemporary Western artists, friends like painter Jim Morgan say it only confirms a talent that he has demonstrated for years in his forays across the inner continent of North America and Europe. Blossom is, by his own admission, a modern Romantic Realist.

Morgan himself is a widely respected oil painter known for his portrayals of wildlife and landscapes, most often Western scenes terrestrial, the influence of the Pacific overlooked. Far from the dust of a rodeo ring, Indian pueblo, or vaulting jawlines of the Rockies, this vision, too, is an important visual aspect of the American West. The nautical tradition encompasses galleons of Spanish conquistadors, exploratory British flagships, cutters carrying Asian laborers to build the transcontinental railroad, and vessels ferrying gold miners north to the Klondike à la Jack London.

Loading Lumber in Port Blakely

Blossom may be only an itinerant Westerner, but he has tens of thousands of miles and hours under his belt in the red rock deserts, inner mountain ranges, and Pacific coastline. He has also spent countless hours prowling the Atlantic, but he does not compartmentalize one from the other. “In fact, I view my maritime work as landscape with water and vessels,” Blossom says.

“Chris’ wonderfully unique marine paintings are as much a portal into the development of the American West as a Moran, Russell, or Remington, but from the perspective of the sea,” Morgan explains. “There seems to be a deep gene pool of imaginative, deliberate, thoughtful, no-accident fine art. The creative apple seems not to have fallen far from the family tree. Chris is continuing the fine tradition of great artists.”

A Utahan, Morgan has reverence for Blossom’s ties to the grand illustration heritage of the East. He has joined Blossom on treks, via horseback, into the Western wilderness. “Chris is solidly on the creative high ground of great representational art being done today. He has few peers anywhere,” Morgan says. “No matter if the inspiration for painting is a red rock desert canyon or the high seas, it is undoubtedly of the highest quality. Subject matter aside, Chris’ art has no boundaries.”

Scott Usher, the CEO of Greenwich Workshop, which has made available a number of Blossom paintings as limited-edition prints, credits the artist’s tenacity and instinct with consistently producing head-turning work, but he notes that on top of it, “there’s this 15 percent factor of pure magic.”

Blossom ponders aloud what intrigues him about the Rocky Mountains. “Conveying distance is something that has always intrigued me. Out on the ocean, you deal with a lot of distance, but there is no scale to put it in perspective. Out west, you can see for 100 miles. Color is brilliant because the air is clear and not humid or hazy. For me, it was eye-opening, and communicating it a challenge.”

What does Blossom prefer — the mighty Atlantic or spying peaks that rise a mile and a half above sea level? “The mountains are far more impressive. Ships make for fascinating subjects, but they are beautiful things humans have created. Mountains are elemental and have a monumentality, a sense and a presence that can’t be re-created with our hands. As artists, we can only try to catch a sense of them,” Blossom says. “I understand why so many illustrators, as their profession started to die with the advent of the camera, headed west.”

“The thing that distinguishes his work, and makes it interesting, is that he’s always looking for new and unusual approaches to presenting his subjects. He could make a lot of money painting a popular setting over and over again — which some artists do — but that’s not the way he is wired,” Jinishian says. “The simple fact is that he has a way of seeing the world that is different from other artists. His art is the way he processes the world, and his paintings are like he is, loaded with creative intelligence, but very lean, with no fat.”

An exemplar of Blossom’s authenticity is Pilot Boat Mary Taylor Off Sandy Hook 1849, which celebrates a boat designed by the same shipbuilder who constructed the racing yacht America, first winner of the America’s Cup sailing trophy in 1851. Another painting, Loading Lumber in Port Blakely, portrays a seaside town in Washington State that, in the 1870s, was home to one of the largest sawmills in the country. Using floating log booms as design elements, he delivers a mesmerizing composition that is also a reference point for pondering history.

“I covet his paintings as very subtle things of singular beauty,” Jinishian says. “For him to end up on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post just has a rightness about it.”

As Blossom demonstrates in his scenes, what’s old can brandish relevance anew as we sail off into his sunsets. Just as Blossom has returned to his roots of illustration for inspiration, so, too, does the Post.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing about art, nature, and the West for nearly 30 years. His last story for the Post was on Western artist Howard Terpning for the Sept/Oct 2015 issue. His most recent book is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, with photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen.

This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.