The Infamous Sketch That Went Down with the Titanic

Drawing by artist Kaustubh Samel. Image courtesy of Saatchi Art

We all love James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. We love the story for its tragedy and fictional lovers Jack and Rose. Apart from the tragedy and demise of the couple, the film is very much focused on art—for starters, Jack is an artist and Rose is an art collector. Both factors are shown during the scenes of Rose going through her own collection of Impressionist artists, and Jack sketching her wearing “The Heart of the Ocean.” Nevertheless, this is all fictional. So, where did Cameron get his inspiration for the art of the film?

 

He got his inspiration from La Circassienne au Bain, an oil painting by French artist Merry-Joseph Blondel. This painting is rather unknown because it went down with the Titanic during the sinking. In fact, it was never recovered! However, after the sinking La Circassienne au Bain was classified as the most valuable object on the Titanic. It sure sounds like Jack’s sketch of Rose in the film. Through this mysterious and lost painting, Cameron was able to create a story we know and love—because behind every art piece, there’s a story.

La Circassienne au Bain
Artist Blondel

La Circassienne au Bain, which is also known as Une Buginese, is a Neoclassical oil painting by Merry-Joseph Blondel. The painting is a portrait of a young nude Circassian woman bathing. In 1814, Blondel completed the painting, and it was featured at the Paris Salon. He had been contributing to the Paris Salon since he came back to Paris in 1810. However, unlike other work Blondel has done, La Circassiene au Bain had mixed reviews. Annika Olsen, a writer for Art Net, recently wrote, “While the work illustrated Blondel’s technical skill, it lacked the artist’s usual artistic and dynamism.” Nevertheless, Blondel still remained a successful artist having his work displayed at the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles.

 

In April 1912, La Circassienne au Bain was in the possession of Mauritz Hakan Bjornstom-Steffansson, a Swedish businessman, who was a first-class passenger on Titanic. To this day it is unknown why Bjornstom-Steffansson had purchased the painting. According to Olsen’s article, he wasn’t an artist, he was a student studying chemical engineering at the Stockholm Institute of Technology. During the sudden and tragic sinking, Bjornstom-Steffansson miraculously survived, having gotten into the last lifeboat after jumping off the ship. Unfortunately, La Circassienne au Bain went down with the ship.

Titanic

In January 1913, Bjornstom-Steffansson had put in an offer of $100,000 to replace the lost painting.  Interestingly, when you think about it in today’s context, he “filed for a compensation claim for over two million dollars in today’s money.” Thus, making La Circassienne au Bain the most valuable and expensive object that was aboard the Titanic. Bjornstom-Steffansson did not receive the full request. Instead, he was only awarded $664,000 which is roughly $17 million dollars today.

 

In 2013, a hundred years later after Bjornstom-Steffansson’s claim, a British artist under the pseudonym name John Parker took on the challenge of repainting and recreating the La Circassienne au Bain. In 2019, Allison McNearney, a writer for The Daily Beast, wrote “Parker’s reproduction shows a classical setting of an open-air bath in which Blondel painted a nude Circassian woman stepping into the water with one foot, the other balanced behind her resulting in a figure arranged in the traditional Greek contrapposto style.” Despite the differences McNearney claims, Parker was able to recreate the famous painting. In fact, three years later in 2016, the replica was auctioned by Plymouth Auction Rooms in England for roughly $3,500.


Although La Circassienne au Bain was lost at sea, it wasn’t entirely gone. The painting has lived on after Blondel’s death and the Titanic sinking. Now it's a cherished painting with a story. Blondel's painting that once sat in the Paris Salon has become a national sensation thanks to Bjornstom-Steffanson for bringing it with him on the Titanic. Then Cameron, who was feeling inspired, sketched his own picture of a nude woman, the one Jack had drawn in the film, which led to the film adaptation. The idea behind Blondel’s La Circassienne au Bain is that every art piece has a story.


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