The East River in New York City is abuzz on a busy morning in 1899 in artist Patrick O’Brien’s painting “Empire City.” As a battleship passes beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, whose two towers were at that point the tallest structures in America, the Fulton Ferry crosses the river towards Manhattan, though its services have mostly become obsolete with the recent completion of the bridge.
O’Brien has always been fascinated by New York, having conducted extensive research on the city’s history using old maps, photos and prints. “The reason I chose this era is because we still had both sailing ships and steamships on the water together,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien’s father was in the Navy, and the artist was drawn to both painting and old sailing ships since childhood. After studying biology in college, he spent some time working as a draftsman at a naval architect firm before deciding to become an illustrator. So, he went to art school, only to drop out after two years upon realizing that he wasn’t getting the practical education he was hoping for. “I’ve never been anything but a self-employed artist since then,” he says.
O’Brien started his freelance career as an illustrator of historic scenes, prehistoric scenes and wildlife for clients such as National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and the Smithsonian. He also illustrated a number of children’s books, including one called The Great Ships. After completing this book, he took some of his ship paintings to the Annapolis Marine Art Gallery. “It started snowballing from there, and I became a maritime painter,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien, who is based in Baltimore, Maryland, now blends his imagination with extensive historical research to create accurate portrayals of sailing vessels and early New York. “I research every ship,” he says of this painting. “The battleship that’s sailing under the Brooklyn Bridge, the ferry going across, the different tugboats, the different types of work boats—it’s all out of my imagination, but I didn’t make up any of the styles of boats or buildings.” —Carly Sisson
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.