Written by Aaron Murphy, 11th Grade Teen Historian
The Rosa y Isabel was a clipper ship that sailed for a German shipping company called F. Laeisz from 1867–1884. At the bow of the ship was a red pine figurehead Rosa Isabella. She was dressed in a short red dress with a white sash tied around her waist. Her long black hair and dress are blown back to represent the speed of the ship.
Unidentified maker, Rosa Isabella, ca. 1865. Polychrome painted wood, red pine group. Collection of New-York Historical Society. 1937.330
After the Rosa y Isabel was scrapped in 1888, the Rosa Isabella was not seen again until 1923. The figurehead was found by a maritime dealer named Max Williams and then sold to Elie and Viola Nadelman. The Rosa y Isabel was a German cargo ship built in Hamburg, Germany by H. C. Stulcken, best known for making a voyage around Cape Horn in record time, and it served the Laeisz shipping company for nearly two decades. The ship was then sold to the E. Burchard and German Company of Rostock and sailed until it was scrapped. Rosa Isabella, the figurehead, is thought to be modeled after a Spanish dancer; however it is not known exactly who the dancer was. Figureheads during the 1800s were thought to be the “souls” of their ships and acted as a way to identify one from another. They were also assigned the anthropomorphic function of the eyes of a ship, standing at the front guiding it through rough waters. When the Nadelmans bought Rosa Isabella from Williams, she was missing her left forearm and the tip of her right foot. However, by 1946 she had her limbs restored. Sometime between the Nadelmans purchasing the ship in 1923 and 1937, when the New-York Historical Society purchased the Nadelman collection, Elie, a trained sculptor in wood, replaced the parts that were missing. This is evident because the replacement parts are made out of cherry wood, Elie’s favorite.
The figurehead Maria Spatz was another that the Nadelmans purchased from Max Williams in 1923. It too, adorned a German ship, also called Marie Spatz, which sailed in Rostock where it was built between 1875 and 1881 by the Burchard firm. It is unclear what dates the ship sailed, but it was most likely scrapped, eventually ending up in Krum Bay, St. Thomas, alongside the Rosa y Isabel.
The Maria Spatz and Rosa Isabella are both polychrome painted figureheads with their paint becoming faded over time. The Rosa Isabella has cracks in her wood that go up and down the entire figure and has replacement limbs. The Maria Spatz has small pieces of wood that have chipped off on her face and parts of her body. The Rosa Isabella is significantly larger than the Maria Spatz and more colorful. The Rosa Isabella has very defined limbs, with her outstretched arm and long legs, while the Maria Spatz lacks that definition, with her arms tucked into her body and her legs not being visible due to her long dress. However, they served the same purpose: they were the souls of their ships and guided them through all trouble.
Before the mid-19th century, women were considered to be an “ill omen” and were not used on ships as decoration. However, by the mid-19th century they were considered good luck and were more frequently used. These two women looked after their crew and protected them during their voyages. The Rosa Isabella and the Maria Spatz represent the lives of their crew because those men chose them to guide and protect the ships that they adorned. The sailors would be away from their families for months at a time, and all they wanted was to get home safely, so having something aboard their ship that would protect them was crucial. The Rosa Isabella and the Maria Spatz were not just decorative pieces on two German ships—they were guardian angels to men who were trying to make a living for their families.
Bruzelius, Lars. “F. Laeisz.” Fleet List:. May 15, 1999. Accessed July 20, 2016. http://www.bruzelius.info/Nautica/Ships/Owners/Fleet_lists/Laeisz.html
Hofer, Margaret K., Roberta J. M. Olson, and Kenneth L. Ames. Making It Modern: The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman. New York, NY: New-York Historical Society, 2015.
“Maria Spatz.” New-York Historical Society Museum and Library. Accessed August 01, http://nyhistory.org/exhibit/maria-spatz .
Meier, Allison. “Revisiting the First American Folk Art Museum, Founded by a Modernist Sculptor.” Hyperallergic RSS. May 20, 2016. Accessed July 20, 2016. http://hyperallergic.com/300075/revisiting-the-first-american-folk-art-museum-founded-by-a-modernist-sculptor/.
Record of American and Foreign Shipping: Surveys Made and Compiled under the Direction of the American Shipmasters’ Association .. New York, NY: American Shipmasters’ Association, 1877. Accessed August 01, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=aJRRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA628&lpg=PA628&dq=marie spatzship&source=bl&ots=TtGoD5x_OS&sig=Gltnga8ti70xxZVOlt0F0j9pFJ8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi36-PnhaHOAhVLlx4KHc35BlIQ6AEIHjAB#v=onepage&q=marie spatz ship&f=false.
“Rosa Isabella, the Spanish Maiden.” New-York Historical Society Museum and Library. Accessed July 20, 2016. http://www.nyhistory.org/exhibit/rosa-isabella-spanish-maiden.