Born in Paris in 1913, John A. Noble was the son of the noted American painter, John ("Wichita Bill") Noble. He spent his early years in the studios of his father and his father's contemporaries, innovative artists and writers of the early part of this century. He moved with his family to this country in 1919, a year which had great significance to him and foreshadowed his life's work.
"It was the greatest wooden ship launching year in the history of the world," he often said.
"About 1929 I started my crude drawings and paintings," the artist recalled. "In the wintertime, while still going to school, I was a permanent fixture on the old McCarren line tugs, which had the monopoly on the schooner towing in New York Harbor. This kept them constantly before my eyes. In the summertime, I would go to sea."
A graduate of the Friends Seminary in New York City, Noble returned to France in 1931, where he studied for one year at the University of Grenoble. There he met his wife and lifetime companion, "the lovely, green-eyed" Susan Ames. When he returned to New York, he studied for one year at the National Academy of Design.
From 1928 until 1945, Noble worked as a seaman on schooners and in marine salvage. In 1928, while on a schooner that was towing out down the Kill van Kull, the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, he saw the old Port Johnston coal docks for the first time. It was a sight, he later asserted, which affected him for life. Port Johnston was "the largest graveyard of wooden sailing vessels in the world." Filled with new but obsolete ships, the great coalport had become a great boneyard. In 1941, Noble began to build his floating studio there, out of parts of vessels he salvaged. From 1946 on, he worked as a full-time artist. Often accompanied by his wife, he set off from his studio in a rowboat to explore the Harbor. These explorations resulted in a unique and exacting record of Harbor history in which its rarely documented characters, industries, and vessels are faithfully recorded.
Although he was raised in artistic circles and quickly gained recognition for his work, Noble always remained intimate with the people of the Harbor. "I'm with factory people, industrial people, the immigrants, the sons of immigrants," he asserted. "It gives life to it." Late in his life, Noble recalled his first compelling views of New York Harbor. "I was crossing the 134th Street Bridge on the Harlem River on a spring day in 1928, and I was so shocked--it changed my life. I was frozen on that bridge, because both east and west of the bridge were sailing vessels. And I thought sailing vessels, you know, were gone... There it was, and I couldn't eat, or anything; I was so excited." By the time of his death in the spring of 1983, shortly after the passing of his beloved Susan, the sailing vessels he loved were all gone, and the maritime industry in the Harbor had diminished significantly.
But Noble's inexorable interest in the sea had not diminished. Although he felt the loss of many kinds of vessels, he was "just as interested in drawing the building of a great modern tanker, the working of a modern dredge, as...in the shifting of topsails." In fact, he wrote, "anywhere men work or build on the water is of interest to me...My life's work is to make a rounded picture of American maritime endeavor of modern times."
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