Discover a hidden American treasure
Invaluable glimpse of the Revolutionary War in special exhibition
Just when you think the last word of the final draft has been written and said about a period in history ...
In a press release, Dr. Philip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs of the Museum of the American Revolution, said: “To have such a detailed depiction of the scene painted by an eyewitness ... from an age before photography is like having a Google Street View look at a Revolutionary War encampment.” What’s he talking about? The recent discovery of a 235-year-old, 7-foot-wide by 9-inches-tall panoramic painting that offers a new and different perspective on the Revolutionary War. The watercolor work depicts the fall 1782 Continental Army encampment at Verplanck’s Point, N.Y. It’s notable because it contains the only known wartime depiction of George Washington’s headquarters tent that served as his command center throughout the war. The tent is an important part of the museum’s collection, that’s presented in surprisingly dramatic fashion in its own dedicated theater. The painting depicts hundreds of military tents arrayed across the rolling landscape of the lower Hudson Valley. Perched on a hilltop, rising above the scene is Washington’s tent.
“There weren’t many good landscape artists — or artists of any kind — in America at the time,” Mead noted in a phone interview. Where did it come from? The previously-unidentified painting appeared at auction, without background context or attribution to an artist. Spotted and purchased by curators from the Museum of the American Revolution, they discovered it was by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-born American military engineer that trained to be an artist, and was best known for his 1791 design for the layout of Washington D.C.
“Clearly he had a very skilled hand for watercolors. He wanted to show the whole sweep of the encampment,” said Mead, explaining that L’Enfant was capturing a journalistic representation for curious Europeans of what the new American army was like.
According to Mead, L’Enfant lived with a Maryland family, related by marriage to American Founding Father Daniel Carroll, during the last years of his life. “He was something of the ultimate ‘Man Who Came to Dinner’,” said Mead. After L’Enfant died in 1825, descendents of the Diggs family later donated L’Enfant’s papers and drafting instruments. How the Verplanck’s Point encampment painting got separated from the rest of L’Enfant’s belongings is unclear.
In a press release, Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming stated: “My heart leapt into my throat when I realized what this painting was. For it to appear just months after unveiling Washington’s original tent (at the museum in 2017) is an astonishing coincidence. This painting illustrates a key point about Washington’s leadership: Washington remained in the field with his army through eight years of conflict. His decision to live under canvas was a physical demonstration of his devotion to them and their shared cause.”
The painting will anchor the limited-run exhibit “Among His Troops: Washington’s War Tent in a Newly Discovered Watercolor,” on display from Jan. 13-Feb. 19.
Oh, it’s not just the painting?
The 2,500-square-foot exhibit includes other works of art — including another L’Enfant panoramic watercolor on loan from the Library of Congress depicting a Continental Army encampment in West Point (15 miles from Verplanck’s Point), period weapons and other artifacts. Closely comparing the Verplanck’s Point panorama to the West Point panorama helped identify the approximate date of completion, and that they were by the same artist.
Mead said that maps made by Continental Army surveyors, from the archives of Harvard University, were also helpful. However the final confirmation of who the artist was came when the worn conservators’ backing was removed. A handwritten “Verplanck’s Point camp” found on the back of the canvas was “unquestionably” L’Enfant’s handwriting. “L’Enfant had a very unusual ‘K’,” he said.
Detail of the newly acquired L’Enfant watercolor painting of the Continental Army’s encampment in Verplanck’s Point, N.Y.
Winterthur Museum has loaned “Washington at Verplanck” by John Trumbull to the Museum of the American Revolution for the run of “Among His Troops.”