Tompkins Harrison Matteson
The Spirit of '76, 1845
Signed T... Matt... and dated ...84... (lr, extending onto canvas overlap)
Oil on canvas
34 3/4 x 40 1/2 inches; Together with After Tompkins Harrison Matteson, THE SPIRIT OF--76, hand-colored engraving by H.S. Sadd, 1862, published by William Smith, Philadelphia, image 15 x 19 inches
American Art-Union annual lottery, Dec. 19, 1845
Daniel C. Waterman, New Bedford, MA (acquired at the above)
Anna Waterman Crane, Pittsfield, MA, by gift, circa 1856
Frank Lamberton Stevens, North Hoosick, MA, circa 1910
Lois Stevens MacGruer, North Hoosick, MA, by descent, 1941
Malcolm Stevens MacGruer, Greenwich, CT, by gift, 1963
New York, National Academy of Design, 1845, no. 218
American Art-Union Transactions for 1845, New York, The American Art-Union, p. 26, no. 4, indicates that the present work was won by D.C. Waterman, New Bedford, MA
National Academy of Design Exhibition Record 1826-1860, Vol II, p. 19, lists the present work as lent by the American Art-Union [published by the New-York Historical Society, 1945]
Described as unlocated since the 1970s in the Smithsonian's Inventory of American Paintings, the present work, the masterpiece of Tompkins Harrison Matteson, has been owned by the same family for more than a century. Among the best-known genre and history painters of the mid-19th century, Matteson was born in Peterboro, New York, where he allegedly received his first art instruction from a Native American incarcerated in a local prison. Working for a few years as an itinerant painter, Matteson arrived in New York City in the 1830s, studying at the National Academy of Design, and opening a studio there in 1841.
In 1845 Matteson painted The Spirit of '76, a work that attracted widespread acclaim when it was acquired by the American Art-Union for its annual lottery, one of two works by the artist offered in the same year. It has been suggested that the painter Francis W. Edmonds, on the Committee of Management for the Art-Union (and also a native of upstate New York) took an interest in the painting and secured its purchase by the association. The American Art-Union was a subscription-based organization whose goal was to enlighten and educate an American public to a national art, while providing a support system for American artists. For five dollars a year, the members of the Art-Union would receive free admission to its gallery, at least one original engraving published by the Union from an original piece of art by an American artist, and a ticket in a lottery to win an original piece of art from within the collection.
The dramatic subject, which was engraved by H.S. Sadd and published by Joseph Laing in 1847, established the young artist's reputation. In 1862, in the early years of the Civil War, it was reissued by William Smith, in Philadelphia.
At center, a stalwart young man prepares for his departure for military service as his father, to the left, gives him a bayonet. At right, his mother offers him a sword. A young woman bids him an emotional farewell while a seated woman with a sleeping infant on her lap holds up a copy of the Declaration of Independence. To the extreme left, a soldier stands in a doorway, waiting to escort the new recruit off to defend his country. The engraved version differs slightly from the painted original, in that the standing woman at center has been replaced by a kneeling woman, nearly swooning with emotion.
In consequence of his early success, Matteson became known for both his genre scenes inspired by historical events as well as his portraits, but none of his later works achieved the renown of Spirit of '76. In 1856, the artist returned to this patriotic theme, painting The Spirit that Won the War, now included in the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. A more elaborate composition, it nonetheless lacks the dramatic impact of Matteson's earlier work.
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