You stand in the crowded launch area, shoulder to shoulder with so many others who, like you, have spent months and months working for this moment. Slowly, the hulking hull moves down the rails, sliding away from the crowd and into the water that begins to froth around its bow. The music and noise of the crowd seem to drift away as you watch, transfixed, until finally, the ship slips free of the dry dock.
And suddenly — with a roar from the crowd, your trance is broken.
You look around at the other shipbuilders who, alongside you, made this moment possible. Now, any lasting tension is gone and is replaced only with feelings of relief — of success, accomplishment, and pride.
This is a story about culminations. About endings that are also new beginnings. Over the three years and 30 episodes that my team and I have been producing Beyond the Frame and throughout my exploration of the works of art in our Collection, I’ve been struck over and over again by the way that they affect me personally. I’ve always felt like works of art are like people — friends I get to learn about and share stories with. And, in fact, this is one of my favorite things about art, the way that, when we open ourselves up to works, they open up to us — and how everyone’s experiences with a single work of art can be so unique. Through my time spent with these paintings, I so often see reflections of my own life.
This 1928 oil on canvas by Walter L. Greene titled Launching of the Virginia is one in which I’ve found an unexpected personal reflection through symbolism — but I’ll come back to that at the end.
August 18, 1928
In this work, the artist has placed us on the interior of a dry dock — Shipway 9 at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNSB) on August 18, 1928. It’s a hot, sunny day, and the time is now approximately 11:22 am – just a minute or so after the 613 foot passenger liner began its launch. Our vantage point is slightly elevated above the crowd and fairly central in the dry dock.
The warm rays of the August sun illuminate the new vessel, highlighting the American flag fluttering in the breeze, the strings of pennant flags, and even the ceremonial christening bottle that still hangs from the bow. The massive ship is backed by a brilliant blue sky dappled with fluffy golden clouds.
But the longer we look at this scene, the more we see. In the shadow of the dry dock, masses of people, seemingly silhouetted at first glance, begin to become more and more distinguishable. They line the ways and even peer down at the scene from the metal scaffolding high in the air.
One man raises his hat in a cheer as three stand centered in the scene, watching intently in this moment of culmination.
Walter L. Greene
The painter, Walter Greene, was the art director for General Electric in Schenectady, New York for 37 years, from 1903 until 1940. His works for the company capture scenes of industry from all across the country and, sometimes, the world. Because of the widespread business of General Electric, it’s unlikely that Greene was able to travel to many of these locations himself and capture compositions, so it is possible that he worked from photographs. As I searched in our archives to find supplemental images to help tell this story, I found this shockingly similar photograph from the Museum’s archives.
Though we are not yet able to confirm a link between this photograph and the painting, it nonetheless adds an eye-witness facet to the work.
We know that the passenger ship Virginia was launched in 1928, but to think that this work was not just painted from a description, but perhaps from an eye-witness photograph of the scene, means that the painting possibly captures the real people who were there on that hot mid-August day.
Emphasized by this narrative photograph, this painting tells the story of people — of shipbuilders who stand together on the momentous day that Virginia became the largest merchant vessel ever launched in the United States at that time. And that ship could not have existed without the dedication of every shipbuilder who stood in that drydock and without the support of their families and community around them.
Just the Beginning
This is a story of culmination — of endings that are also new beginnings. This painting — this moment at approximately 11:22 a.m. on August 18, 1928, is not the end of Virginia’s story; it is truly just the start. It was delivered to the Panama Pacific Service of the International Mercantile Marine Company just three short months later. It was refitted and renamed Brazil in 1938 and served as a troopship during the second World War. Its life on the water lasted for more than 30 years.
Looking Forward to New Beginnings
As I mentioned, this work is one through which I found a personal reflection. Because, like this painting, this episode is also a story of endings that are new beginnings. There is exciting work underway at The Mariners’, the beginning of our journey into our second century in 2030, wherein we’re working to bring as much of our Collection as possible out of storage and into areas where you can come and connect with it.
These galleries are spaces where you can use these objects to tell your story, adding your voice to the global community of mariners, and find connection through these objects. We’ll be producing more videos and content to connect you with the Collections we’re bringing into the galleries, but I hope you’ll come and stand with us, shoulder to shoulder, as we build this new future — the second century of The Mariners’ — together.
As we step forward into 2024, this will be the last regular episode of Beyond the Frame, but just like the launching of Virginia, this is a time of new beginnings.
So for now, here’s to new beginnings.
While working on the concept for this edition of Beyond the Frame, I knew I wanted to end with the voices of those who have helped make feats like the launching of a ship possible — members of our community who have been at these launchings and experienced what those in the photograph and painting must have felt. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with two Newport News Shipyard workers: Derrick Holton, 34 years at NNSB, and Rodger Moorefield, 43 years in the X-32 Sheetmetal Shop at NNSB. They told me about their experiences and shared their feelings upon watching the launches of ships and submarines they had worked on.
“Until you see the ship float out of that drydock, it’s a static thing. But once you see it move — oh, man, it’s like, ‘Hey, I had a piece of that.’ It’s an incredible amount of pride and respect, it’s just phenomenal. I mean, it swells you up . . . swells you up.”
“I look back at what I did then and what I do today with a sense of pride. You know, they crack the bottle, you hear the horns go off, and all of a sudden, this huge mass of steel just starts sliding, and, you know, I’m oblivious to anybody else around me at that point. You get this upwelling like – I helped do that . . . I helped put that together.”
See the painting in person.
Now through March 8, 2024
This painting is on temporary display upstairs in our Conservation Clean Lab viewing area! Visit the painting, learn more about these new beginnings, and give us your feedback to help us lay the foundation for our second century!
About the Artist: Walter L. Greene
Walter L. Greene (1870-1956) was a commercial artist and illustrator who painted primarily in the 1920s and 30s. Greene was born in Schenectady, New York, and trained at the Boston Art College. He specialized in painting original oils on commission for advertising agencies and other commercial interests. He was employed by General Electric in Schenectady, New York, as manager of the Art Department for 37 years beginning in 1903. In addition to his work for General Electric, he also produced works for the New York Central Railroad’s annual calendar from 1925-1931 and completed a number of works for the U.S. Navy.
For more information on Beyond the Frame and Production at The Mariners’
contact Kyra Duffley: [email protected]
For information on the Newport News Shipbuilding accessible storage testing,
contact Erika Cosme: [email protected]
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