- Historic Sites
They Knew What They Liked
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
The setting is a battlefield of the Revolutionary War. The American lines have been broken. Defeat is imminent—until an indomitable trio of musicians advances alone to spark a rally. The shrill whistle of the fife and the steady beat of the drums rise above the din. The lines re-form, and a dying soldier lifts his cap in a last salute to Old Glory.
The flag was an anachronism so far as 1776 was concerned, since the thirteen white stars arranged in a circle on a blue field, and the thirteen horizontal stripes, alternately red and white, were not authorized by Congress until June 14, 1777. But no matter; the fair visitors were not historical scholars. They got the message.
Willard had no thought of delineating three generations of one family, but the inference could be drawn, and the creator accepted the interpretation. Eventually he painted several versions. One hangs in the main hall of the Western Reserve Historical Society. A replica is owned by the city of Cleveland, which has also honored Willard with a park and a plaque. The father of the original drummer boy, General John Henry Devereaux, presented the painting at right to Marblehead, Massachusetts, ancestral home of the Devereaux family, where it still hangs in the public library.
The picture has been copied and parodied endlessly. A cartoonist of the World War I era took a shot at prohibition captioned Spirit of 1917. James Montgomery Flagg put the three patriots in the uniforms of World War I for a recruiting poster. Willard’s art has indeed influenced life, for the figments of his imagination have become features of many a subsequent parade, such as New York’s great Preparedness Day Parade in 1916, when 123,000 marchers streamed up Fifth Avenue behind living replicas of The Spirit of ’76 . Folklore though it is, the picture still retains the capacity to stir the emotions, to evoke the memory of the days when men fought face to face.
Painting at his home in the picturesque belle forêt of Fontainebleau, Jean François Millet completed his L’Homme à la Houe in 1863. The finished canvas aroused a storm of abuse. Millet was belittled as the “peasant’s Dante,” the “rustic Michelangelo.” Court ladies could be depicted as they played at being shepherdesses, but a serious treatment of peasant themes—that was not a fit subject for art in France. Besides, critics saw in the painting of this simple, gentle, devout Catholic, the spirit of anti-Christ, the insidious brushwork of a socialiste.
But the nation which had recently freed the slave and saw itself as a refuge for all who were oppressed responded enthusiastically to 16 by 20 inch prints in monotone of The Man with the Hoe. America approved of Millet’s statement of his purpose—to show the dignity of labor. It approved warmly of his spotless personal life, lived far from the bohemian iniquities of Montmartre, and of his remarkable directness in handling paint. There was, too, a fascination in the tales which crossed the sea of his early struggles, grinding poverty, and belated recognition. Finally, the United States liked The Man with the Hoe for good intrinsic reasons—its sentiment, its heart, and because it was, in a sense, about farming.
Through countless prints and reproductions, the North American public became familiar with the sturdy, rather ungraceful figure of the peasant laborer. He is seen bent with fatigue. The calloused hands rest heavily upon a clumsy hoe as the weary worker seeks a moment of repose. He wears the worn blue trousers and stout wooden sabots of the French peasant, hat and blouse laid aside nearby.
The history of Millet’s picture might have developed along conventional lines had not a California school superintendent, Edwin Markham, been unable to forget the experience of seeing the painting reproduced in Scribner’s Magazine in 1886. Markham viewed the picture as a “symbol of betrayed humanity.” Later, the original painting was exhibited in San Francisco. “I stood before the painting,” Markham wrote later, “absorbing the majesty of its despair, the tremendous import of its admonition. I immediately jotted down a few of the opening lines of my poem … the few opening words, just enough to … nail fast my purpose to write a poem that should cry the lost rights of the toiling multitude.” The poem was written at a white heat of indignation and published in the San Francisco Examiner, January 15, 1899. The forty-nine line jeremiad begins: