Wednesday, February 17, 2010

History of Navigation Mural

Historic image of Grand Salon

Sometimes, there are events in your life that leave a lasting impression you will treasure forever. My recent trip to NYC had a few events like that. Besides my walk in Central Park and other outings I had the fortune to go with my friend RJ to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As many times as I have visited, there is always something new to see. When you think you have seen it all there is a curator who decides to bring something back to dazzle you and all who visit. Such was the case on this visit.

It was donated in 1976 and appropriately, if partially, displayed in the restaurant; best seen from the bar until a remodel in 2002 that forced the watering hole's closing. The object in question: a 58 panel Art Deco glass mural depicting an allegory on navigation by Jean Dupas that once graced the walls of the First Class Salon of the most luxurious steam ship ever created: The SS Normandie.

Historic Image of First Class Dining Room

The SS Normandie was launched in 1935 by Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, named for the French province from which it sailed, connecting Le Havre to New York. It became the new flagship and sailed the Atlantic along with its two sister ships the SS Paris and the SS Ile de France. The Paris, launched in 1916 was known for its Art Nouveau interior. The SS Ile de France was launched to coincide with the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 that coined the term Art-Deco. The SS Normandie was known for its luxury exemplified by the finest artist of the time. Besides the Grand Salon by Jean Dupas, there was René Lalique's of sumptuous Dining Room encased in Lalique crystal and larger than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

56 panels mural turns corner and is lit by numerous guilt light fixtures

It is unfortunate that you can't go and have a cocktail or a cigarette and cruise the crowd as many thousands no doubt did. If you can, go and visit and see a marvelous collection of other wonders of Art Deco housed in the gallery. Regardless, enjoy the images.

The panels each weighing 40 pounds are fashioned from reverse-painted gilded glass through a technique called verre églomisé (guilt glass). The scenes were painted in black and varying pastel colors and applied to the back of plate-glass panels. Gold, silver and palladium leaf were then laid atop the paint and sealed into place with a canvas backing.

The ship had a short run. With the German invasion of France in 1940, the SS Normandie was seized by US government and retrofitting was commenced to use as a troop ship. In 1942 while dismantling the interior decor an acetylene torch ignited a stack of thousands of life vests filled with kapok a highly flammable plant (and buoyant ) material, stored in the dining room. [See: Plants have a role just about everywhere you go!] The flames spread quickly and engulfed the ship. Fireman pumped so much water to suppress the fire that the shipped rolled over in its side.

Art-Deco Queen Mary Observation Bar

Of that era little remains. Certainly, most of the new ocean liners of today are nothing but floating malls and buffets for those people that want to shop rather than luxuriate. If you ever catch yourself in the LA area drive down to Long Beach and check out the Queen Mary, a contemporary of the SS Normandie. It is permanently anchored and serves as hotel, restaurant and museum. I have had cocktail or two at the Observation Bar thinking of the fabulous places this ship sailed. Have one for me!


  1. Incredible. You are right that it is not at a bar where you can have a have drink and a fag.

  2. Wonderfully written, Rene'. Love getting these posts.

  3. I was searching the internet for liner interiors and saw this article. It may be a bit overly dramatic to say it has changed my life but I was very inspired by the verre eglomise panels. I am an artist, usually I paint in oils but after seeing this article now plan to take a course in glass decoration. Thank you for writing this inspirational article.