Dis­cover a hid­den Amer­i­can trea­sure

In­valu­able glimpse of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War in special ex­hi­bi­tion

Northern Berks Patriot Item - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Brian Binga­man bbinga­[email protected]­tu­ry­media.com @bri­an­binga­man on Twit­ter

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.”

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