On the Water

Mural Painting, The Currents

These ten painted aluminum panels comprised a wall mural aboard the ocean liner SS United States. Called “The Currents,” the mural depicts the Atlantic Ocean with the direction of the ocean’s currents rendered in stylized, dimensional arrows. The continents are applied to the panels in gold leaf, while the ocean is painted in various shades of blue and green. Aboard the ship this mural was located on the starboard side of the first class observation lounge. “The Currents” and a companion mural called “The Winds” were painted by artist Raymond John Wendell.

Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs, the SS United States was created out of an unusually close connection to the federal government. During the Second World War, the U.S. Navy recognized that converted ocean liners were effective transports for conveying troops to far-flung war zones. After the war ended, the government pursued the building of a technologically advanced passenger vessel that could be converted to carry troops in the event of another global conflict. With significant federal funding and support, the SS United States was built and launched in 1952. Although it was never converted for wartime use, many of its design details remained classified into the 1970s.

One of the most unusual features of the ship was the tremendous amount of aluminum and the lack of wood Gibbs specified for its construction. Determined to build a ship that was not only fast, but ultra-safe, Gibbs was especially concerned with fire prevention after several wartime catastrophes. One that haunted him was the story of the luxury liner RMS Empress of Britain that was attacked by a German bomber while transporting hundreds of soldiers on October 26, 1940. Sixty-four troops were killed in the resulting blaze, which was fueled by the ship’s lavish wood carvings, staircases, and paneled rooms.

Two thousand tons of aluminum were used in the construction and outfitting of the SS United States, making the ship lighter and more fire-resistant than any vessel afloat. The furniture and artwork, including these panels, were all made of aluminum. Publicists for the ship claimed that the only wood on board was to be found in the galley’s chopping blocks and in the piano. Gibbs even tried to reduce this miniscule amount of wood, but Steinway & Sons allegedly refused to build an aluminum piano. To this day, the SS United States is considered the fastest and one of the safest ships ever put to sea.

ID Number:
Wendell, Raymond John
gold leaf, paint, aluminum
overall mural: 108 3/4 in x 146 1/4 in x 3 in; 276.225 cm x 371.475 cm x 7.62 cm; bottom panel: 79 3/8 in x 29 1/4 in x 3 in; 201.6125 cm x 74.295 cm x 7.62 cm; top panel: 29 3/8 in x 26 1/4 in x 3 in; 74.6125 cm x 66.675 cm x 7.62 cm
US department of Commerce, maritim Administration thru R.J. Blackwell, Asst. Sec. for Maritime Affairs

Other Views