Saturday, March 17, 2007

NYPL Exhibit: From Revolution to Republic

In 1800 Mason Locke Weems, author of the first popular biography of George Washington and creator of the story of Washington and the cherry tree, wrote to Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey, urging him to “put to press” an edition of Weems’s Life of Washington with a better portrait than the one his first publisher had printed. Weems included in his letter an engraving of the Revolutionary general Hugh Mercer, suggesting that Carey make it a suitable portrait of Washington. To us, who live in an age putatively concerned with truthfulness, authorship, and the rights of artists, Weems’s suggestion seems a bit crazy. But in 1800, using the work of someone else was common, and attributing the portrait of one hero to another was not unusual. The point for Weems was to have a frontispiece that appealed to his potential readers, most of whom had not seen any Washington portrait. The frontispiece had to more refined than the crude one that opened the biography’s first edition; its likeness to Washington was irrelevant in 1800. When demand for and distribution of Washington portraits dramatically increased during the next ten years, using portraits of men such as Benjamin Franklin to represent Washington became both undesirable and unnecessary.

While fictitious portraits of Washington compose part of the current New York Public Library exhibition “From Revolution to Republic in Prints and Drawings,” the exhibit's focus is “firsthand visual accounts of the major battles and scenes of the early Revolutionary period,” the library’s print specialist, Nicole Simpson, writes. “A number of them are by British and American soldiers who participated in the incidents they depicted, and they are often the most accurate, or only, contemporary depictions of these events.” Unfortunately, illustrations of most of these firsthand accounts are missing from the exhibit’s online version. Fragility of the pieces preventing reproduction, copyright problems? If only we could see Archibald Robertson’s sketchbooks. Even so, the available visuals with Simpson’s illuminating commentaries are well worth an online visit.

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