Photos courtesy Museum of the American Revolution
Philip Mead has been a collector since he was six. “Every evening as I am winding down, I go on Bidsquare, Invaluable, and some individual auction house sites to see if I can find something of interest,” said Mead on the phone recently. He has collected material relating to the American Revolution such as canteens, accouterments, diaries, and letters from soldiers, which described their life in war. When Mead was an academic at Harvard University, he collected for himself. When he became chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, collecting the Revolutionary War period things for his own account became a conflict of interest.
His new job didn’t change his habits of browsing the Internet, and last spring, shortly after the museum opened, he came across a listing on the Heritage Auctions site that described a Revolutionary War watercolor to be sold in Dallas, Texas, on May 13, 2017. It was in six parts, each 9" x 13¾", all mounted on a folding linen backing and bound in a custom portfolio titled “Verplanck Point Camp.” The catalog noted that “the watercolors can be extended and fully opened to display a panoramic view of the terrain and encampments.” When opened, it was 7' long.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Mead. “At the end of a panorama of hundreds of tents, up on a hillside was a big marquee tent with a Neoclassic entrance. Could it be the tent Washington used as his headquarters for most of the war, the one we feature at the museum with a movie, our star relic?”
Mead immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections. “Stephenson has been lecturing about the tent for ten years,” Mead said. “On my way into the office the next morning, I called him and told him he better look at his e-mail—he gets hundreds every day. I told him I may have found something pretty important.”
The digital images on the Heritage site excited the entire research staff at the museum. They got into action. “Four of us, Scott Stephenson, curator Mark Turdo, and assistant curator Matt Skic, got to work on it. We asked a bookman in Dallas to take a look at it for us and do our bidding.”
The lot sold for $13,750 with the buyer’s premium.
R. Scott Stephenson (left) and Philip Mead examine the 7' long panorama by Pierre Charles L’Enfant that shows the Continental Army encamped at Verplanck’s Point in the Hudson Valley.
Closeup of Washington’s oval tent with its Neoclassical wooden entrance; the dining tent is visible at the back.
Washington’s tent on the hill. Mead said it was on the hill so that everyone could see it, not because he wanted to be separated from his officers.
“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,” said Mead. “There is so much we can learn from it about Washington and the Continental Army.”
It is the only known wartime depiction of General Washington’s headquarters tent, his command center throughout the war and the cornerstone of the museum’s collection, dramatically presented in its own dedicated theater.
Now, after months of research, Mead said his find is even better than he thought. “Before we bought it we knew about the watercolor panorama by Pierre Charles L’Enfant showing the Continental Army encamped near West Point in August 1782 at the Library of Congress. In fact, we used images from it in our film,” Mead recounted. “The provenance gave us the clue that the Verplanck encampment was also painted by L’Enfant.”
According to the Heritage Auctions catalog, the watercolors were found among the papers of a descendant of Thomas Digges. A grandnephew of the Digges family, Dr. James Dudley Morgan, gave the watercolor panorama of West Point along with L’Enfant’s papers to the Library of Congress in the 1920s. The Digges family housed the impoverished L’Enfant (1754-1825) at the end of his life, and Morgan, who had a passionate interest in L’Enfant, saw to it that L’Enfant’s body was moved from a Maryland grave to Arlington National Cemetery.
To fortify the attribution to L’Enfant, Mead said the letter “k” on the back of the watercolor matches the letter “K” in a letter from L’Enfant to Washington. L’Enfant, the son of a painter, studied with his father at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and at the Louvre before he was recruited by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais to serve in the American Revolutionary War. He arrived in North America in 1777 at age 23, served as a military engineer in the Continental Army, was on Washington’s staff at Valley Forge, and was with Washington in the Hudson Valley in 1782. Best known for his 1791 city plan for Washington, D.C., L’Enfant left behind when he died three watches, three compasses, some books and maps, and surveying instruments, all together worth $46, according to Wikipedia.
Heritage Auctions had cataloged the watercolor as depicting the Battle of Stoney Point in July 1779, but Mead has determined that it depicts the Continental Army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point in the fall of 1782. On a tip from a colleague, he found a map to prove it among papers from Washington’s headquarters at the Houghton Library at Harvard.
“The map unlocks the whole thing; you can tell exactly where L’Enfant was sitting,” said Mead. “The map shows all the officers’ tents lined up, and the cartographer Simeon De Witt signed his name at the lower right.”
“For the L’Enfant watercolor to appear just weeks after our unveiling Washington’s original tent is an astonishing coincidence,” said R. Scott Stephenson. “The 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.”
For a very limited time—from January 13 to February 19—the Museum of the American Revolution will exhibit the 7' panorama of the Continental Army encampment at Verplanck’s Point in New York, painted by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, along with the watercolor of the encampment at West Point painted by L’Enfant the previous spring and on loan from the Library of Congress.
“The encampment at West Point shows camp followers and children; a woman with a kettle is ladling out food; and across the river you can see the parade grounds; the uniforms make it more colorful,” said Mead. “The recently discovered panorama shows the officers’ tents, and up on the hill is Washington’s oval tent that is at the Museum of the American Revolution and the dining tent that is at the Smithsonian.”
John Trumbull painted a portrait of Washington and his horse at Verplanck’s Point and presented it to Martha Washington. The oval tent is not visible in the Trumbull painting, now at Winterthur, but the researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution said they can tell that Washington is shown standing on the spot right in front of his tent. Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, 1964.2201 A, B.
After the war, Pierre L’Enfant designed the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, founded by former officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts. He went to France to have the insignias made for the members by Parisian goldsmiths. A diamond-encrusted one for Washington was commissioned by the officers of the French Navy. Known as the Diamond Eagle, it is made of gold and silver and set with 200 diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. It will be on view at the Museum of the American Revolution through March 3, on loan from the Society of the Cincinnati. It was presented to George Washington in May 1784 during the first general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati at the City Tavern in Philadelphia, just around the corner from the new Museum of the American Revolution. When Washington died in December 1799, the Diamond Eagle was among his possessions at Mount Vernon. His widow, Martha, sent the Diamond Eagle to Alexander Hamilton, who was elected the following year as the successor to Washington as president general of the society. Following Hamilton’s untimely death in July 1804, the Diamond Eagle was sent by his widow to South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney upon his election as the third president general of the society in 1805. Pinckney donated the Diamond Eagle to the society in 1811. This badge continues to be passed down to each president general of the Society of the Cincinnati as part of his induction into office.
Letters and diaries by eyewitnesses describe bowers that each regiment erected in front of its tents to provide shade and protection and with symbols indicating the regiments’ origins. By enlarging the digital images of the recently discovered panorama, these details can be seen. Most of the symbols are hard to make out, but the curators identified a tiny anchor in one bower—the symbol of a regiment from Rhode Island known for its large number of African American and Native American soldiers. A similar anchor is visible on the hat of a black soldier among a group of four soldiers drawn by Jean-Baptiste Antoine de Verger, who fought in Rochambeau’s army. An enlarged image of the drawing in a collection at the Brown University library is featured in the museum’s permanent exhibition.
The watercolor also shows the elaborate Neoclassical wooden entrance that was erected in front of Washington’s tent. Enlargements of this detail will anchor the five-week exhibition Among His Troops: Washington’s War Tent in a Newly Discovered Watercolor, which will include other works of art, weapons, and a 5' x 7' replica of the tent on the first floor of the Museum of the American Revolution.
The exhibition will also explain why Washington had such a big encampment in the Hudson Valley a year after the Battle of Yorktown. “The war continued until the Treaty of Paris in 1783,” said Mead. “Washington wanted to see the English leave New York City about sixty miles downriver, and he knew he needed the help of the French fleet to make it happen. French troops passing through the Hudson Valley on their way to set sail from Boston were impressed with the large encampment.”
“This encampment with all its beauty was a diplomatic act,” Stephenson said. “They knew they had to impress the world.”
For more information, check the website (www.AmRevMuseum.org) or call 1-877-740-1776.
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest