Underlying all the ideals he held dear—foremost among them strong faith, family first, love of country, generosity, concern for his fellow man—Tom W. Freeman simply always set out to do the right thing. Considered by many to be the best maritime artist in the world, he recently answered the call from the U.S. Naval Institute’s CEO, retired Navy Vice Admiral Pete Daly, to compose a painting as a thank-you and parting gift for W. Thomas Musser, the outgoing Vice-Chair of the Naval Institute Foundation Board of Trustees and a major donor. Freeman promptly seized on the admiral’s request and crafted a dramatic rendering of the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38), on which Tom Musser had served from 1959–61. Typical Tom Freeman.
Known in artistic circles for his stunning use of watercolors and in the historical-art realm as a slave to detail and accuracy, the Pontiac, Michigan, native moved to Baltimore with his family when he was 12 and lived in the environs of that city ever since. Other than having served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and U.S. Army in the early to mid-1970s, Freeman had no experience—aside from an abiding interest—in the subject matter that would later define his professional life.
Nor did he receive any formal art training, later asserting that his natural talent was “a God-given gift.” But perseverance and pure fate were on his side, too. Soon after leaving military service, he began showing his work to Naval Institute Proceedings Art Director Delroy W. Kiser Sr., who suggested he contact C. G. Evers.
The great watercolor artist Evers gave his new disciple some sage advice that led him on a nearly 40-year artistic quest. Freeman reflected recently: “Carl Evers gave me his history prints to study and said, ‘You’re free to copy or duplicate my style; your own style will emerge from that.’” The old master had told him “to look closely and I would figure it out.” To even the most discerning eye, Tom Freeman has indeed figured it out.
His first Proceedings cover appeared in February 1977. It was a painting titled “Convoy” that, according to the table of contents description, “sets the mood” for an article and a pictorial that paid tribute to the workhorse Victory and Liberty ships of World War II. Leading off that issue, incidentally, was an article on the future of shipbuilding written by a 44-year-old Donald Rumsfeld, who had recently concluded 14 months as President Gerald R. Ford’s Secretary of Defense. Freeman was walking in fairly tall cotton even that early in his career.
While his paintings have since graced such publications as TV Guide, Reader’s Digest, Popular Mechanics, Boating, Yachting, and Business Week, by our count Freeman art appeared on the covers of 9 issues of Proceedings and 22 editions of Naval History. His watercolors have also adorned book jackets from such publishers as G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Dell, Jove, Bantam, Berkley, and the Naval Institute Press.
‘Witnesses to the Fire’
For decades, Freeman’s artwork has been hanging in the executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—from the White House mess to the West Wing. “I got a call on Thanksgiving Day 1986 from a Captain Ron Jackson, claiming to be head of the White House mess,” Freeman recalled. “He and a Secret Service agent had seen my art on the cover of Proceedings and wanted to secure some of it for the White House. I hung up on him. Thank heaven, he called back, asked if I realized what I had just done, and wondered whether any prints were available. I thought about it a split-second and told him I’d do one better and send some original art. That’s how it all started.”
Freeman created several paintings on the building’s history for the White House Historical Association (“Mr. Lincoln’s White House” and other works have appeared on its official Christmas cards). In 2014, the association published historian William Seale’s The Night They Burned the White House: The Story of Tom Freeman’s Painting, commemorating the bicentennial of the British torching of the residence in August 1814 and telling the story behind the artist’s 2004 dramatic rendering of the event, which had drawn unexpectedly keen public interest for ten years before appearing on the book’s cover.
“The only pictorial record of the fire the British set in 1814 is the aftermath,” writes the association’s Marcia Anderson in the introduction. So it called on Freeman to contribute vignettes of the conflagration for the new book. In the resulting artwork, describes Anderson, “We see the torches, the broken windows, the burning interiors, and collapsing roof. Two centuries later, we have become witnesses to the fire.”
Freeman also composed illustrations of cutting-edge naval technology. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin alone commissioned him to produce more than 100 paintings, mostly of the latest U.S. guided-missile cruisers and destroyers but also Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, along with the pride of the German, Turkish, Australian, New Zealand, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Spanish, Norwegian, and Danish fleets. He also did artist renderings of vertical-launch capabilities for BAE Systems, as well as night-vision technology for ITT and underwater-cable systems for AT&T.
The artist’s range was considerable. He did paintings of Alexander the Great at the 332 B.C. Battle of Tyre and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 of World War II for the National Geographic Society. The National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard hosted an exhibition of Freeman’s artwork for the bicentennial of the U.S. Navy and another highlighting his series of scenes from the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii includes a permanent exhibit of those indelible images—42 in all plus a large dramatic mural of the attack.
The U.S. Naval Academy as well is home to several pieces of Freeman art. Most prominently, no visitor, Navy sports fan, or naval-affairs conferee can miss his three huge murals towering over the lobby of the Academy’s Alumni Hall. Commissioned by the graduating Class of 1961, the depictions from that era in which the class had served are titled, “The Marines at the Hué Citadel,” “Dawn on Yankee Station,” and “Rescue by USS Barb.”
Some of Freeman’s most enduring achievements were commemorations of historic events that found their way to such venues as Israel’s Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa, the Vatican, and the palace of Bahrain’s king.
The work that hangs in Haifa, titled “The Chosen,” is his rendition of the ramming of the ex-USS President Warfield (IX-169), a former Baltimore luxury packet that had served as a control ship off Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion. Renamed Exodus 1947, with a large number of Jewish refugees on board bound from France to “the Promised Land,” she was attacked, boarded, and seized by the British Royal Navy, which had imposed a blockade. After being escorted back to France and undergoing miserable conditions on the ship, the immigrants were eventually sent to Germany. Even though she “lost the battle,” the Exodus 1947 “won the war,” as related in a Naval History cover story for the 50th anniversary of the event, “a symbol of the birth of Israel.”
Freeman’s “Ship of State” captured the attention of the international Catholic community in spring 2002. The scene is the USS Constitution at anchor off Gaeta, Italy, on 1 August 1849. “I could find no images of Gaeta from that period,” he told us, “so the Italian naval attaché in Washington, Captain Raffaele Caruso, sent me photos from the 1850s and I went by them for the background. For any questions I ever have about the Constitution—or anything about the Age of Sail, for that matter—I go to the expert, [former captain of the ship] Ty Martin.”
Boarding “Old Ironsides,” with her yards manned, are King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilys and Pope Pius IX, both leaders in the thick of political turmoil at the time. Because a commissioned U.S. ship was considered part of the nation, this was the first time a pope had ever stepped onto American “soil.” Through Catholic hierarchical efforts, Freeman and his wife Ann were whisked to the Vatican in April that year to personally present the original painting to Pope John Paul II.
“Guest of the King” might well be the only American painting gracing the palace of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Freeman’s depiction of America’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65)—anchored off Manama, Bahrain’s capital city—would be the perfect good-will gift for the king, thought Deputy Commander, U.S. Central Command, Vice Admiral Mark Fox. So on 10 May 2012, the admiral paid a personal visit to the king and presented him with the painting.
In light of the sheer number and amazing scope of Freeman’s artistic contributions to the Sea Services, to the nation, and indeed to the world, he received the U.S. Navy Superior Public Service Award on 3 April 2003. It is readily apparent to anyone taking inventory of such an illustrious career that Tom Freeman consistently achieved what he intended all along—to do the right thing.
About the Artist and the Man . . .
I have always been impressed with Tom Freeman’s deep feel for the sea, the Navy, and the beautiful sweep of warships flashing across the horizon. Today, I own one of his watercolors—the USS Valley Forge (CG-50) at the Strait of Hormuz—which I treasure, mostly because I served on the ship. It hangs in my office here in Boston, a reminder of that gorgeous cruiser, now decommissioned, but living forever because of the artistic genius of Tom Freeman
—Admiral James Stavridis, USN, (Ret.), Dean, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and Chair of the Board, U.S. Naval Institute
Tom Freeman’s dedicated and meticulous approach—in gathering as many primary sources and previous images as possible as he conceives a painting—has always impressed me. His scrupulous adherence to the historical record has produced images that are as close to what actually happened as we are likely to see.
—Dr. Edward Furgol, Managing Director, National Museum of the United States Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command
Tom Freeman, like his mentor, Carl Evers, is among the finest marine artists of his time. His vast coverage of our proud naval heritage has and will continue to prove very useful to all of us needing to employ the best representations of those historic events. Tom is superb in his choice of subjects, his thorough research, his perspectives, his use of color and light, and in producing a highly respectable and presentable final product. In short, he is the best.
—James Cheevers, Senior Curator, U.S. Naval Academy Museum
While his work appeared in the Institute’s magazines and books, Tom also provided occasional excitement for the editors and designers, pushing deadlines to the limit. I am blessed to have two Freeman originals. The USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) in heavy seas on convoy duty hangs in my office. The other one is especially meaningful—a P-47 Thunderbolt, painted as my dad had it done in 1944, with my mother’s name on the aircraft’s cowling. That original now hangs in my 93-year-old father’s home in Gettysburg. Tom is a great artist and an even greater person.
—Fred Rainbow, Director for Education, U.S. Naval Institute, former Editor-in-Chief, Proceedings
Throughout his career, Tom Freeman has captured iconic warships, epic battles, moments of glory and of heartbreak, and the spirit of all who sail in harm’s way. One of his most significant contributions was the Naval Institute Press 50th-anniversary compilation, Pearl Harbor Recalled: New Images from the Day of Infamy (1991), which solely features Freeman’s paintings of scenes only briefly and poorly photographed or not captured on film at all on 7 December 1941. A true American and a patriot, Tom is the quintessential artist, always seeking new subjects and painstakingly rendering them to add to his illustrated gallery of naval heritage and tradition.
—James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, author, deep-sea explorer, National Geographic Television personality
Tom Freeman has consistently provided visual images of scenes for which no photographs exist. His range of subject matter is amazingly diverse, and he is a consummate artist in terms of style and technique. He studied the work of long-time Proceedings contributor Carl G. Evers so he could emulate Evers’ depiction of water—so that it really looks wet. His generosity has been a great help in some of my own work. For example, when I was doing a book on artistic depictions of aircraft carriers in World War II, Tom did a number of paintings, again images never captured on film.
—Paul Stillwell, naval historian, oral historian, author, The Golden Thirteen and Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History, both from the Naval Institute Press, and “Looking Back” columnist and contributing editor, Naval History
Tom Freeman is an icon in the realm of realism, where beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder but is an actual component of his work. Whether capturing the drama of real-world kinetic action or the power of a warship on patrol on a distant station, Tom’s works give added meaning to the term “virtual reality,” using classic artists’ tools to do what bits and bytes can never quite equal. Tom the artist is a giant in his profession; Tom the person is a model of generosity and good will. If the Naval Institute ever creates a hall of fame, Tom Freeman will be a charter member.
—Thomas Cutler, naval historian, author, Brown Water, Black Berets, A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, and The Battle of Leyte Gulf, all from the Naval Institute Press, and “Lest We Forget” columnist, Proceedings
As a young man and aspiring artist in the 1980s, I discovered Tom Freeman’s artwork on the cover of my father’s Proceedings magazines. I was captivated by the drama of the scenes, but my artist’s eye was especially interested in the mastery of the technique. His control over the difficult medium of watercolor was a wonder to behold, and his battle scenes were tightly controlled renditions of dynamic, chaotic events. Those Proceedings covers ignited my passion for maritime history and art, and I might never have pursued my current course as an artist without the example of the art of Tom Freeman.
—Patrick O’Brien, award-winning marine artist and frequent contributor, Naval History
I commissioned a work from Tom Freeman 25 years ago, and we’ve been close friends (more like brothers) ever since. He subsequently did a painting of the former USS President Warfield on the 50th anniversary of her becoming the world-famous transport Exodus 1947. For my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary, Tom gave us the painting as a gift to present to the Israeli ambassador to the United States at an event commemorating the ship’s steaming to Europe to complete her mission. The artwork (including the original pencil drawing he used for the painting) now hangs in the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa. Tom’s generosity is unequaled—and all this from a man who is so down-to-earth and whose ability has not gone to his head. His knowledge is matched only by his talent.
—Steven Selenfriend, philanthropist, avid collector of antiquities, and photographer