They Knew What They Liked

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“I don’t know anything about art, but....” It is doubtless the oldest of all critical bromides, perhaps first uttered by some puzzled paleolith staring at a cave drawing, and echoing down the ages ever since. In every age, it would seem, some pictures draw the crowds and some do not. In our own time, when the galleries bulge with new and bizarre art forms, the struggle for comprehension continues. The public peers at strange sculptures, dangling mobiles, abstract paintings. What do these masses and streaks and blobs describe? The artist and the critic struggle to inform us that it is self-revelation—inner tension, social protest, torment of the soul. The crowd expects, however, that a picture will tell its own story. It shrugs, or giggles, and turns away. Nonsense! says the crowd. Philistine! cries the artist, and the controversy rages on.

What can be established with some certainty is what the American public did like long ago, in the days when the artist was concerned with his subject instead of with his inner self. It admired portraiture and history, especially as painted, not in realism but in reverence, by West and Peale and Trumbull; it was awed by scenery—romantic, spectacular, elaborately delineated by men like Cole and Bierstadt. Most of all, if attendance at exhibitions means anything, the multitude admired the picture that told a story, the tragic or humorous anecdote of everyday life, the moment of heroism or of emotion, recognizable and plainly felt.

On the next few pages is an examination of the history of four such pictures, once famous but now fading from public view. If they vary enormously in artistic quality, in subject, even in origin (two of them were painted in France)—they are united by a common fate: each was a popular favorite, for many decades, with its own generation. Indeed, the days of the first of them, still held in high affection after more than eighty years, have not yet run out, and are perhaps not likely to.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76

 

An unknown to biographical dictionaries and most art critics, Archibald M. Willard was the son of a Vermont Baptist minister who had removed to Ohio and grandson of an old Green Mountain Boy who was present at Burgoyne’s surrender. The artist was born August 22, 1836, in Bedford, Ohio. He scrawled pictures on barn doors and board fences at an early age and later sketched the country around the Cumberland Gap while serving in an Ohio regiment in the Civil War. After the war, Willard painted wagons in the loft of E. S. Tripp’s wagon works in Wellington, Ohio, often decorating the wagon boxes with woodland scenes and animal pictures, so that “Tripp’s wagons” became known throughout a wide region.

Willard had a knack for humorous subjects. Two of his pictures of child life, Pluck No. 1 and Pluck No. 2 , were reproduced as chromolithographs. Thousands were sold at $10 for the pair by James F. Ryder, a Cleveland photographer and art dealer. From his connection with Ryder, Willard earned enough to go to New York City in 1873 where he took an art course, his only formal training.

Looking ahead to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, Ryder was casting about for a picture that might be launched on the wave of patriotic sentiment generated by the Centennial. Willard showed him a crayon sketch of two comic drummers and a fifer, which he called Yankee Doodle, or a Fourth of July Celebration . The drawing poked sly fun at the bucolic character of a typical Independence Day celebration in a sleepy country village. Sensing the retrospective mood of the country, Ryder was able to persuade the artist to eliminate the horseplay. “Draw it again,” he told Willard, “then paint it—and leave the humorous vein out.”

The central figure, the old man with the drum, tall, straight, powerful-looking for all of his flowing white locks, was a likeness of Willard’s father. Humor lingers in the character of the fifer. The model was Hugh Mosher, a farmer and late fifer in Company H, Forty-third Infantry Regiment, Ohio Volunteers. The drummer boy was Henry Kelsey Devereaux. Young Devereaux was captain of the Third Company at Brooks Military School in Cleveland, whose smartly executed “Fours left into line and forward guide right double-quick march” in a competitive drill charmed the artist and led to the invitation to pose. The canvas was finished in the spring of 1876 and displayed in Ryder’s window. Crowds gathered at once to view the painting, and the prints aroused such popular enthusiasm that the art committee of the Centennial wired Willard to send the original to the fair. There was an acre and a half of art to look at, but it was the ex-carriage painter who gave the people the most compelling example of democratic painting. And the people responded. It was a generation trained to declaim with Patrick Henry, “Our brethren are already in the field!”; or to recite with gestures:

In their ragged regimentals, /Stood the old Continentals.

Old and young queued up to gaze in reverence. The critics ignored the picture, but the people wept.