There are serendipitous moments in history, and then there are serendipitous moments about history. In May 2017, Dr. Philip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the American Revolution, found himself knee deep in one of those very moments when he stumbled upon a watercolor of George Washington’s camp at Verplanck’s Point on the Hudson River.
Time travel through art
Mead says he was browsing online auctions for items that would fit into the museum’s newest exhibition featuring Washington’s original marquee tent, which had opened just a few months prior. “I immediately was excited by it because it’s one of so few images we have of the Continental Army in camp, and more than that, it was a panoramic watercolor view,” he says. “It was almost like time traveling.”
The painting, created in 1782, was particularly unique in its representation of Washington’s tent among those of his troops at the encampment, something that no other painting from the era has. Some in-depth sleuthing led Mead and Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, the Museum’s Vice President of Collections, Exhibitions and Programming, to the watercolor’s creator: French-born artist, engineer, and officer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. L’Enfant was the artist behind the panoramic view of West Point, now shown at the Library of Congress, and he would later go on to design the plan for Washington, D.C.
Washington in war
The Verplanck’s Point painting measures 84.25 by 8.75 inches and depicts Washington’s tent seated at a hilltop overlooking hundreds of military tents in Hudson Valley. The location of the tent is significant, and serves as a visual corroboration of something Washington was most known for — his loyalty to his troops.
“[Washington] set up his tent at times deliberately, to show that he was willing to share the hardships of his men, and then that became a really critical source of authority for him at the moment. Late in the Revolutionary War when this watercolor was done, Washington faced an emerging resistance from his own officers who were dissatisfied by their treatment from Congress during the war,” Mead explains. “He was able to diffuse that by pointing to his shared sacrifices in the field.”
America’s largest city
The painting also gives insight into L’Enfant’s style as an artist. The encampment would have been the largest city in the United States at the time, and L’Enfant’s depiction of the site is relevant to historians of urban planning and design, Mead says. L’Enfant was also responsible for much of the iconography that came to represent the early American republic, including the eagle emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati. Washington was the Society’s first president and served until his death in 1799.
L’Enfant’s painting of Verplanck Point will be shown at the Museum of the Revolutionary War in an exhibition called Among His Troops: Washington’s War Tent in a Newly Discovered Watercolor, which will run from January 13 through February 19, 2018. The exhibit will feature objects used in the encampment, including uniforms, badges, and other items demonstrating the artistry of the army. The museum is also displaying Washington’s tent in a dedicated theater.
The Museum of the American Revolution is open daily from 10am to 5pm, and is located in Old City at 101 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets can be purchased online, by calling 215-253-6731, or at the museum. The Among His Troops exhibit is included with regular museum admission.
Above at right: A closeup of the painting shows Washington's tent in the field. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.)