Over the years that I have worked at CHS I have noticed that some items seem to have a particular appeal as illustrations. Sometimes it is clearly understandable, as with the flag that decorated Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater, or Amos Doolittle’s engravings of Lexington and Concord. But in other instances the attraction is less obvious. A case in point is an 1885 oil painting titled Advance of the Enemy, the work of Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (1840-1896). For some reason the painting has resonated with authors and magazine and textbook publishers over the years, based on a quick review of its publication track record. Why?
Is it the artist that interests people? The Baltimore-born Thompson is not considered particularly well-known today. About 1860 he swapped a budding career as an attorney to pursue his dream–art. Best known as a landscape painter, he trained in Europe and produced a reasonable body of work. Back in the States he painted portraits, landscapes and, as in our example, historical scenes. Still, he is not even close to being a household name. So, what else is at work?
Well, the painting itself, a 1930 gift from a local family, was originally subtitled Redcoats Sack a New England Home. The original record said it portrayed events in the Norwich-New London area. There are some problems with this. Other than the 1781 attack on Fort Griswold in Groton, there were no British land attacks in this part of the state. Secondly, the architecture of the home in question is very much unlike New England; in fact, it suggests New Jersey or the mid-Atlantic. Finally, some if not most of the troops depicted appear to be Hessians, which as we know were used in New Jersey. OK, so it is not even depicting New England, never mind Connecticut. What’s the story?
The period during which the painting was done falls into what is called the Colonial Revival. Extending from the 1880s into the 1930s, it was a time when many Americans looked back to the nation’s roots for inspiration and commemoration, and this was reflected in art, architecture and other fields. This movement was also influenced to a certain extent by worries over large-scale immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Emphasizing the virtues of the new nation was seen by some as a way to both reaffirm Americans’ self-identity and promote assimilation of the newly arriving throngs. An argument can be made that Thompson’s painting points up the sacrifices made by Americans during the Revolution; a stark reminder of the price that might be paid by the average guy (or in this case, family) for supporting independence; and by extension, the debt owed by succeeding generations. So for whatever reason or reasons there may be, Thompson’s painting continues to strike a chord with audiences well beyond the age of the Colonial Revival.