Francis Augustus Silva 1835-1886

At Coney Island

  • 16 x 24 inches (40.6 x 61 cm)
  • Oil on canvas
  • Signed lower left: F.A. Silva. Inscribed on stretcher: at Coney Island
  • c. 1880

Why We Love It

One of the leading marine painters of the Luminist style, Silva was especially known for his skillful manipulation of light and atmospheric effects. In At Coney Island, he beautifully captures the light breaking through the clouds and illuminating the sails of the ship, which appear to be billowing in the breeze. This is an excellent example of the artist’s work in a fine period frame.

The Value

Silva’s most luminist paintings are rare and wonderful finds; they are also considerable investments that are out of reach for many collectors. At Coney Island is an excellent example of Silva’s mature style, with his exceptional depiction of light and atmosphere, but it is more accessible for a serious collector. This painting has a fine period Watts frame that adds to its beauty and value.

Artist Background

1835: Born in New York City; 1848–50: Exhibited ink drawings at the American Institute; 1858: Set up first studio; 1868: Married Margaret A. Watts; 1867: Discharged from military service; 1868–69: Debuted as a painter at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition; 1885: Painted what many consider his masterpiece, “A Summer Afternoon at Long Branch”; 1870: Began living and working on the Lower East Side where he remained for most of the decade; 1872: Elected to American Watercolor Society; 1879: Traveled to Venice around this time; 1880: Moved to Long Branch, New Jersey. Maintained studio in New York City; 1882–86 Rented studio in Tenth Street Studio Building; 1886: Died at age fifty.

Marine painter Francis A. Silva was born October 4, 1835, in New York City, where he was raised at 125 East Broadway, close to the busy East River docks. According to family history, Silva’s father, an immigrant barber from the Madeira Islands, descended from a French statesman who was exiled and became a portrait painter for the Portuguese court.

Silva revealed this artistic heritage at an early age. He won amateur awards and, at the age of thirteen, exhibited drawings at the Twenty-First Annual Fair of the American Institute. In spite of his talent, his family did not encourage Silva’s art career. After a few disappointing tries at different trades, he eventually found success as a sign-painter’s apprentice. By 1858, he had set up his own shop as an ornamental painter at 619 Houston Street. At the onset of the Civil War, Silva enlisted with the Seventh Regiment of the New York State Militia.

In 1868, he married Margaret A. Watts of Keyport, New Jersey. They settled in New York where Silva, who never had formal training in art, began his mature career as an artist. Two years later, they moved to the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, close to the harbor activity of the Narrows. Beginning in 1868, he was a regular contributor to the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design and the Brooklyn Art Association. Silva was elected to the American Watercolor Society in 1872 and the following year, he joined the Artists’ Fund Society. Throughout the 1870s, he traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard from Delaware to Massachusetts, seeking subjects. Among his favorite spots were the widest areas of the Hudson River where he could paint from calm, panoramic expanses of water with gentle mountains in the distance.

1874 was an artistic turning point for Silva. After seeing the schooner Progress capsized in New York Harbor, he was deeply moved by a sense of loss and curiosity. Silva returned to the debris several times, sketching feverously. The shipwreck, already an established artistic metaphor for loss and struggle, became a reoccurring theme in Silva’s work.

Like other artists who later became known as Luminists, such as Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, Silva tempered his accurate recording of the details of harbor, river, and shore scenes with his personal interpretation of lyrical effects of light and atmosphere. He believed that this creative act required a period of gestation—that painting from memory, at least in part, was necessary for a true kinship with the spirit of nature. Yacht Scene, Coney Island encapsulates this belief, in its depiction of a ship close to shore, sunlight streaming through the clouds and reflecting off of the crashing waves.

After moving with his family to Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1880, he spent several years painting the local landscape. During this time, from 1882 until his death from pneumonia in 1886, he also maintained a New York studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building.