It is a frail seven-foot-long watercolor, rendered so far in the past that its paper has taken on the pale reddish blush of a dried peach.
Yet when Philip Mead, chief historian and head of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the American Revolution, first saw the image of a riverside army encampment in an online auction catalog, he sensed immediately that it was something unusual and important.
At that point, in May, the artist was unknown, and the date of 1779, supplied by the auction house, was rather curious. Even so, Mead knew he was on to something.
“I stumbled across this offering of a panoramic watercolor of Verplanck’s Point,” Mead said. “In the foreground was a marquis tent so elaborately decorated that I had to think, ‘That’s Washington’s tent.’ That’s almost too good to be true.”
But it was true. Mead had found what is believed to be the only surviving image of Washington’s headquarters tent in use in the field, the very tent that serves as the dramatic high point of the museum’s own exhibitions.
Not only that, but after additional sleuthing, Mead and colleagues determined the artist was none other than Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the man who designed Washington.
In May, the museum bid about $12,000 for the watercolor. And won.
The watercolor, currently in conservation, will serve as the focal point of a small exhibition the museum will mount in January.
On the evening he first saw it, Mead shot an email with the catalog image and listing to R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s director of collections and interpretation.
“Is this what I think it is?” Mead wondered.
Stephenson felt in his Revolutionary War-drenched bones that it was.
“If I had a defibrillator, it would have gone off then,” he said, describing his instant excitement. “There are so few images like this done from life during the Revolutionary War, particularly … very few from the Continental Army.”
There were some problems, however. The catalog listing was vague. It did not indicate the name of the artist, and the 1779 date made little sense to Mead and Stephenson.
So the two historians went to work. They ventured to the Library of Congress to look at another panorama, of the Continental Army encampment at West Point. After studying that, Stephenson says, it became clear from the brushwork and other artistic details that the two panoramas were done by the same hand.
The West Point view was known to be by L’Enfant, a French-born engineer who had joined the Continental Army, served on Washington’s staff, and later created the design for Washington.
The view of Washington at Verplanck’s Point had also, at one time, been part of a cache of papers from a family that cared for L’Enfant in his later years.
Further research also showed that the West Point watercolor had to have been done after August 1782, not in 1778, as the Library of Congress had thought. The Verplanck’s Point image came from a short time later.
The museum will borrow the West Point watercolor for its January exhibition, showing the two rare images side by side.
“L’Enfant is an engineer, a trained French engineer serving with the Continental Army,” said Stephenson. “What he’s documented here is the location of the army as it moved from West Point. It moved from there, in boats. Washington is rehearsing an amphibious landing in New York City, which was still occupied by the British. They come down in boats and land at Verplanck’s Point. So you have, with these watercolors, an alpha and omega image of that strategic move of the army from West Point down to Verplanck’s Point.”
In L’Enfant’s watercolor of Verplanck’s Point, Washington’s tent sits on a rise at the extreme left, with the army stretching down along the Hudson River. Across the river to the west lies Stony Point.
“There are vignettes in the front here,” said Stephenson. “Some of the only casual images of soldiers at ease. There’s a camp follower and children, and she’s holding a kettle with food, and there are two guys eating with spoons out of it. They have a wonderful genre-painting quality to them. There’s a cluster of noncommissioned officers. There’s baggage.”
And there’s Washington’s tent, currently in the museum’s exhibition theater, but sitting rather modestly overlooking the painting’s casual military landscape.
In Stephenson’s view, the watercolor emphasizes the importance of Washington’s efforts to remain in the field with his men.
“It gives him the moral authority to confront those [rebellious] officers at Newburgh, reminding them, ‘I have remained in the field with you,’ ” said Stephenson, referring to a potential mutiny over back pay and harsh conditions that Washington defused.
“The fact is that here, in 1782, people were saying very explicitly that no one would begrudge him if he stayed in a farmhouse nearby. But he not only stayed in a tent, he had it very purposely positioned so that when he stepped out in the morning, every one of those soldiers, 8,000 men, would be looking right at the commander-in-chief.”