All too often history, art, and art history are highly compartmentalized. But the Museum of the American Revolution (MOAR) has discovered a locus that successfully melds them in its elegant exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier.
It’s a good bet that you probably know little or nothing about Irish artist/soldier Richard St. George (1752-1798), the exhibition’s subject. I certainly didn’t, and surprisingly, neither did many museum staffers when they began the research that culminated in this striking view of St. George’s life, art, and the world around him. Aptly on view through St. Patrick’s Day next year, this first international loan venture chronicles the life of an unusual and gifted man. But it also successfully places him in the context of America’s struggle for independence and the larger world in which he lived, fought, and made art.
A portrait of the artist
While at Trinity College (Cambridge), St. George inherited an Irish estate and published the first of his “macaroni” cartoons, satirical Hogarthian sketches that established his artistic reputation. (The pejorative “macaroni” described a foppish over-dressed man, a term still with us in the ballad “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”) A number of these are included in the exhibition, including A View in America (1778).
After graduation and newly commissioned as a British officer, St. George sailed to the American colonies. Here he fought (and sketched) in the theater of war that surrounds us so intimately— against Washington in New Jersey, in the attack on Philadelphia, in Delaware at the Battles of Cooch’s Bridge and Brandywine, and in the Battle of Germantown, where in 1777 he was shot in the head and underwent surgery in Philadelphia. One of his cartoons satirically titled My Triumphant Entry into Philadelphia depicts him being carried on a stretcher.
This serious wound sent him home to Ireland, and he suffered its aftermath (headaches, hallucinations, and probably PTSD) for the rest of his life. A signed self-portrait depicts the artist in a flowing black garment with the matching head wrap he often wore to cover his scars.
An international collection
Like this self-portrait, some of the 100-plus artworks and ephemera come from MOAR collections, but more than 40 lenders also contributed to the exhibition. Borrowed artifacts range from a Delaware militia flag captured in Philadelphia (Delaware Historical Society) to a real “red coat” (Dumbarton House in Washington, DC) to an 18th-century trephine (skull saw) on loan from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.
However, for me the paintings are the stars of this beautiful installation. They include (from MOAR’s collection) two 1782 works depicting the Battles of Paoli and Germantown by Italian artist Xavier della Gatta (active 1777-1829), commissioned by St. George, painted with his input and based on his wartime sketches. From Ireland’s National Gallery (Dublin) come three striking portraits of St. George by noted Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808), including a work of lamentation that depicts St. George at the tomb of his beloved wife Anne.
From Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) comes one of the exhibition’s visual highlights, a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). St. George posed for the 1776 painting just after received his commission and before he sailed for America. It’s a luminous work that shows a young man full of promise, in striking contrast to Hamilton’s somber later work depicting St. George’s pain. Closer to home, the Delaware Art Museum loaned Howard Pyle’s The Attack on Chew House, first seen by many Americans in history textbooks.
Fresh and exciting
There are many programs, seminars, and lectures (detailed on MOAR’s website), but one of the most interesting is a dramatic first-person presentation. Written by Philadelphia playwright Chris Braak, it’s a 20-minute monologue that will be repeated periodically. At the exhibition’s opening, actor Seth Reichgott, portraying the artist in his black garb and head wrap, gave an affecting performance.
Unified by embracing deep gray walls, the exhibition’s immersive design (by Steve Feldman) successfully weaves its disparate elements into a cogent visual statement. And the exhibition’s lead curator Matthew Skic (who learned his trade in Winterthur’s American Material Culture Program) has merged art, art history, Americana, and military history in a fresh and exciting way. Whatever background you bring to Cost of Revolution, you’ll come away with something new.
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What, When, Where
The Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier. Through March 17, 2020 at the Museum of the American Revolution, 101 South 3rd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 253-6731 or amrevmuseum.org.
The Museum of the American Revolution is an ADA-compliant venue. For more information on visiting, contact Guest Services at 267-579-3596 Voice/TTY or email [email protected]