PAINT­ING

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - NATION & WORLD -

in Welling­ton, Ohio. “We hope Jay gets a chance to tell the world his story.”

Stevens, 59, lives in Port St. Joe, a small coastal town in the Pan­han­dle, about 100 miles south­west of Tallahassee. A long­time an­tiques and art dealer, Stevens moved back to his home­town 16 years ago to care for his ail­ing par­ents. His father died sev­eral years ago; his mother will turn 90 in De­cem­ber.

The “Spirit of ’76” paint­ing he owns is a wa­ter­color ver­sion that is be­lieved to be one of the nu­mer­ous “orig­i­nal copies” Wil­lard painted. Stevens bought it for $200 in the late 1970s, at an an­tiques mar­ket in At­lanta —spurred by his love of Amer­i­cana and all things pa­tri­otic. The man who sold it to him claimed to have been given it by Wil­lard’s grand­son.

Hav­ing learned only this year the paint­ing could be worth $500,000 to $2 mil­lion, Stevens wants to sell the paint­ing. But he hopes to sell it to some pub­lic en­tity, such as the White House, which cur­rently has only a copy of the paint­ing.

“I hope it goes some­where where the pub­lic can see it. I am a pa­tri­otic Amer­i­can and noth­ing is more pa­tri­otic than this paint­ing,” Stevens said. “Mother and I need all the help we can get, and this is a god­send. It’s a once-in-al­ife­time find.”

It also was a once-in-al­ife­time cre­ation for its artist.

The best-known paint­ing by the least-known artist

Archibald Wil­lard (1836-1918) was a res­i­dent of Welling­ton, Ohio, a small town in north­ern Ohio, 30 miles south of Lake Erie. Wil­lard fought in the Civil War as a mem­ber of the 86th Ohio Vol­un­teer In­fantry. Be­fore and af­ter the war, he was a wagon painter for a Welling­ton horse­drawn car­riage maker.

He soon be­came a full­time artist, paint­ing land­scapes, por­traits, his­toric scenes, hu­mor­ous sketches and build­ing mu­rals. But he never pro­duced any­thing as renowned as “Spirit of ’76,” and his name is dimly known out­side of art cir­cles.

“We like to say, it’s ‘the best-known paint­ing by the least known artist,’ ” Markel said. “Ev­ery­body knows the paint­ing when they see it, but they don’t know who it’s by.”

Wil­lard’s art ca­reer took off in the early 1870s when he met J.F. Ry­der, who ran a photography stu­dio and art gallery in nearby Cleve­land. Ry­der was im­pressed by Wil­lard’s artis­tic abil­i­ties, and they formed a part­ner­ship, sell­ing hu­mor­ous sketches and posters drawn by Wil­lard.

In 1875, as Amer­ica ap­proached its 100th an­niver­sary, Ry­der en­cour­aged Wil­lard to pro­duce a piece for the 1876 Cen­ten­nial Ex­hi­bi­tion in Philadel­phia. Wil­lard be­gan work on his fa­mous paint­ing, mov­ing to Cleve­land to com­plete the large 8-foot-by-10-foot oil paint­ing.

Wil­lard based the scene on sum­mer pic­nics in Welling­ton, when vet­er­ans from the War of 1812 drank rum all day and by evening were mock-march­ing and play­ing their drums and fifes.

The paint­ing orig­i­nally was named, “Yan­kee Doodle,” be­cause, as Wil­lard said later, “That’s the tune I hear when I look at it.” He used peo­ple he knew as mod­els.

The drum­mer in the cen­ter was his father, Rev. Sa­muel Wil­lard. The fife player on the right was his boy­hood friend and fel­low Civil War sol­dier, Hugh Mosher. The boy on the left was Henry Dev­ereaux, a cadet at a Welling­ton mil­i­tary acad­emy. Even the of­ten-over­looked fallen sol­dier in the fore­ground was based on a pair of Welling­ton res­i­dents.

Orig­i­nally, the piece was meant to be hu­mor­ous, and the men were por­trayed march­ing in a light-hearted man­ner. But in 1875, Wil­lard’s father grew ill; he died be­fore the paint­ing was com­pleted. Wil­lard ad­justed the paint­ing to have a more somber tone to re­flect the “dig­nity and for­ti­tude and moral hero­ism of my father.”

Even so, when the paint­ing was dis­played at the Philadel­phia ex­hi­bi­tion, it was put in a room sep­a­rate from the rest of the art ex­hibits, be­cause of­fi­cials didn’t think it rep­re­sented se­ri­ous art.

But the paint­ing was wildly pop­u­lar. Thou­sands of peo­ple poured into the room to view the paint­ing, with many re­turn­ing sev­eral days in a row. U.S. Pres­i­dent Ulysses Grant ar­rived late one evening, as Wil­lard re­paired a small tear caused by the jostling crowds. The 18th pres­i­dent was moved by what he saw.

Af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion, the paint­ing went on ex­hibit in Bos­ton — where it was re­named “Spirit of ’76” — then later was on dis­play in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In 1880, Welling­ton rail­road mag­nate John Dev­ereaux, father of the cadet in the paint­ing, pur­chased the art­work for $5,000 — “a ridicu­lous amount of money then,” Markel said.

Dev­ereaux do­nated it to his home­town, Mar­ble­head, Mass., where the gi­ant paint­ing still hangs in the town hall.

“Spirit of ’76” soon be­came one of the most copied paint­ings in Amer­i­can his­tory, even as art his­to­ri­ans de­rided it as car­toon­ish and crit­i­cized its com­mer­cial pop­u­lar­ity. One critic snorted, “The num­ber of peo­ple who saw it (on ex­hi­bi­tion) is dwarfed by the num­ber who came to own copies.”

Artist cre­ated more than one ‘orig­i­nal’

Wil­lard would go on to paint sev­eral more ver­sions of “Spirit of ’76” for fam­ily mem­bers, friends and even one for Pres­i­dent Grant —cre­at­ing a host of “orig­i­nal paint­ings.”

Those “orig­i­nals” of­ten var­ied. Though Wil­lard al­ways re­peated the ba­sic scene of the three men march­ing and the sol­dier on the ground, he added dif­fer­ent back­ground fea­tures to sub­se­quent paint­ings. The copies var­ied in size (though none were as big as the first in 1876). He painted nu­mer­ous ver­sions in wa­ter­color, rather than oil, es­pe­cially for fam­ily mem­bers.

But Wil­lard did not keep a record of his ad­di­tional “orig­i­nals,” and the num­ber has never been cer­tain.

Markel says to­day the num­ber is es­ti­mated at be­tween 18 and 26 “orig­i­nals.” There is one at the U.S. State De­part­ment in Wash­ing­ton D.C., one at Cleve­land City Hall and one in the Welling­ton city li­brary. Oth­ers be­long to fam­ily mem­bers or pri­vate col­lec­tors — and Markel has no doubt Stevens owns one of the “orig­i­nals.”

Ear­lier this year, Stevens learned about the “Spirit of ’76” mu­seum, which was founded in 1958. He sent the mu­seum pho­tographs and a let­ter, de­tail­ing all he knew about his paint­ing. Markel was elec­tri­fied: Ev­ery­thing Stevens de­scribed fit what the mu­seum knew about Wil­lard, or is de­scribed in a 1976 bi­og­ra­phy of Wil­lard, “Spirit of ’76, An Amer­i­can Por­trait,” by his great-great­nephew Wil­lard F. Gor­don.

Markel be­lieves the paint­ing Stevens owns is one Wil­lard did for his old­est daugh­ter, Maud, who died in 1922. It was then owned by her son, Wil­lard Con­nolly, the only grand­child and only di­rect heir of Archibald Wil­lard.

The paint­ing in­cludes sev­eral back­ground fea­tures not found in other ren­di­tions, such as a mu­ni­tions house and a group of sol­diers be­lieved to be the Green Moun­tain Boys of Ver­mont, the fa­mous Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War unit whose mem­bers in­cluded Wil­lard’s grand­fa­ther.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the paint­ing has unique iden­ti­fy­ing marks. On the back of the paint­ing, there are fram­ing in­struc­tions signed by a “Mrs. Maud.”

“Ev­ery­thing about Jay’s story checks out,” said Markel, who hasn’t seen the paint­ing in per­son but has seen photos and talked with Stevens nu­mer­ous times. “There is no way he would have known all the in­for­ma­tion he did, if he didn’t get it from the source.”

Sale at an­tiques show yields pa­tri­otic gold

Stevens’ late father was a banker, who over­saw es­tate sales for clients who died. An only child, Stevens of­ten tagged along, de­vel­op­ing an early ap­pre­ci­a­tion for an­tiques and art­work — and Amer­i­cana.

Stevens’ house is stuffed with an­tique fur­ni­ture, paint­ings, clocks and Amer­i­cana. Stevens is a crafts­man who also makes an­tique- and Amer­i­canastyled clocks, fur­ni­ture and mir­rors.

He lived for nearly 20 years in At­lanta, work­ing for a de­part­ment store while buy­ing and sell­ing an­tiques.

Stevens bought the paint­ing some­time in the late 1970s, in At­lanta. While at­tend­ing an an­tiques show, he saw a man sell a valu­able-look­ing chest of drawers to a cus­tomer and Stevens asked him what else he had.

The man brought out the “Spirit of ’76” paint­ing. He said it was a copy of the fa­mous paint­ing and said it had been given to him by the painter’s grand­son, a fel­low vet­eran he be­friended at a Tampa vet­er­ans hospi­tal.

Markel said that fits with what is known about Con­nolly, a World War I vet­eran who died in 1961 in San­ford and is buried in a na­tional ceme­tery in St. Petersburg. Though the spe­cific paint­ing is not men­tioned in Gor­don’s book, he writes Con­nolly gave away all the paint­ings he owned by his grand­fa­ther be­fore his death.

The man wanted $1,000 for the paint­ing, whose glass and frame were cracked.

But Stevens had only $300, and fig­ured he needed $100 of that for his last two days in At­lanta and the drive back to Port St. Joe. He of­fered the man $200, and the man ac­cepted the of­fer.

He never asked the man’s name or any fur­ther ques­tions about the paint­ing. “I was young; I didn’t ask him all the things I should have.” But he was ex­cited, be­cause the paint­ing fed his great love for all things Amer­i­can.

“It re­ally gave me a feel­ing in the gut,” Stevens said. “I thought: I might be broke when I get home, but I’ll have a pa­tri­otic im­age I will love for­ever.”

A few months later, Stevens took the paint­ing to an At­lanta art dealer. The dealer cleaned up a cou­ple of dis­col­orations, put a new frame and glass on it — and sug­gested it might be valu­able. The dealer said it was “re­ally old,” and showed Stevens the sig­na­ture of “A.M. Wil­lard,” which Stevens had missed be­cause the sig­na­ture was so faint.

Over the years, Stevens learned more about Wil­lard and the fact he made ad­di­tional orig­i­nal copies. But many years ago, he showed it to an­other art dealer, who in­sisted his paint­ing must be a copy be­cause all of Wil­lard’s orig­i­nals were owned by in­sti­tu­tions or col­lec­tors.

“So I dis­missed the idea and quit re­search­ing; I fig­ured it was a copy, like from a ma­chine” said Stevens, who nonethe­less kept it in a dark closet to pre­vent it from fad­ing.

But late last year, talk­ing with a fel­low art dealer in Vir­ginia, he was en­cour­aged to try again. The Vir­ginia dealer said he had sold many paint­ings that took many years and many ex­perts to au­then­ti­cate. So early this year, Stevens re­newed his search and sent a let­ter to the Spirit of ’76 mu­seum.

Markel re­sponded with en­thu­si­asm, and Stevens is now buoyed by the op­ti­mism of a pos­si­ble wind­fall.

In 2005, an Alabama phi­lan­thropist paid a record $1.5 mil­lion for a “Spirit of ’76” orig­i­nal oil paint­ing. A New York art gallery cur­rently has one listed for $1.8 mil­lion.

Though two wa­ter­color ver­sions of the paint­ing are on dis­play at a Cleve­land mu­seum, Markel and Stevens agree the one Stevens owns is more vivid and has fea­tures the oth­ers don’t. They both note the strong fam­ily own­er­ship con­nec­tion, hav­ing passed from Wil­lard to his daugh­ter to his only grand­child.

They think those fea­tures will fig­ure promi­nently in any sale.

“I don’t think a half-mil­lion ($500,000) would be un­rea­son­able,” Markel said. “The only thing hold­ing it back is it was un­known (among art deal­ers). But what it’s got go­ing for it is that story.”

Stevens is ex­cited over the pos­si­bil­ity of a big pay­day. But re­gard­less what hap­pens, he will for­ever be grate­ful to have bought the paint­ing.

“My fam­ily and I are pa­tri­otic Amer­i­cans, and there is noth­ing more pa­tri­otic than this paint­ing,” he said. “Ev­ery time I look at that im­age, I feel so pa­tri­otic, I want to put a flag in ev­ery room.”

“We’ve seen as many ‘Wil­lards’ as any­one and we re­ally be­lieve it’s the real deal.” Scott Markel, a trustee of the Spirit of ’76 Mu­seum

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