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A Picture That Stirred A Nation - Archibalt Willard Spirit of '76


Mr. A. M. Willard

ARCHIBALD WILLARD died some years ago, but his soul, like that of John Brown, still "goes marching on." He painted it on canvas for all of us to see, and it is called "The Spirit of '76." The painting is not a notable contribution to art.

When it was first exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 it created no enthusiasm in the art world; no critic hailed it as the work of a new genius ; no art lovers burned incense before it. But every man, woman and child that cherished the simple, rock-bottom principles of patriotism greeted the picture with a quickening heart-beat.

In the figures of the white-haired old man, the sturdy fifer, and the boy, marching fearlessly forward with drum and fife and waving flag, all the people, old and young, saw three generations of a nation's protest, and they thrilled at the spectacle so vividly set before them.

The Spirit of '76

Original In Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Mass.

The story of the painting is a very simple, human one. The artist's name is Archibald M. Willard, and he was born at Bedford, near Cleveland, Ohio, August 22, 1836. He had little art training in his early years, or later, but he had a certain facility with pen and brush, and while camping near Cumberland Gap, he made pictures of that picturesque military situation, which, being photographed, were purchased by his comrades and their friends as mementoes of army life.

Willard returned from the war with a great plan in mind. He would represent on large sheets of canvas the war scenes he had witnessed and sketched, and exhibit them throughout the North. He studied art for a while, and then labored long on a great panorama mounted on rollers, which he undertook to exhibit in northern towns, but the plan was not a financial success. In the end, he Washed the color out of the cotton cloth, to save at least that part of the investment.

Fourth of July Musicians

The "Spirit" as it started to be

Willard then curbed his ambition, and got a plain job as a painter in a carriage shop. Willard's wagons and carriages won attention and favor because of the little paintings he often put on the side to catch the eye of the purchaser. Many a sale was made by his employer, because of these adornments.

Willard's father was a country minister, and his grandfather a Revolutionary soldier—so religion and patriotism, and love of fun were all his by inheritance—and it was the last of the three that first expressed itself in his attempt at art.

One day the daughter of his employer brought him a crude wood-cut of a dog harnessed to a wagon, chasing a rabbit, and asked him to paint her a picture like that. Using the wood-cut as a suggestion, he painted a picture called "Pluck." It showed a dog hitched to a cart chasing a rabbit, and in the cart, two frightened children, with hair rising on end, hanging grimly to the seat and reins.

When this picture was exhibited in a Cleveland photographer's window, many people stopped to look at it, and its fame spread far and wide through reproductions. This, and a companion picture, done in chromo process, were sold by thousands. Willard now had enough money to apply himself exclusively to picture making, and sketches of a humorous nature came in rapid succession from his brush.

Many of his comics were printed in the newspapers and reproduced by lithography. He illustrated John Hay's "Jim Bludsoe," and he made an amusing picture, "Deacon Jones's Experience," that delighted Bret Harte so that the latter gave the picture its title and wrote a poem to go with it.

The Models For The Picture

Harry Devereux, the drummer boy (upper), Hugh Mosher the fifer, and the artist's father, who posed for the central figure

As the Centennial Exposition of 1876 was approaching, Willard was anxious to make a picture that would be suitable for exhibition there. He had the idea of painting a group of country musicians at a Fourth of July celebration. He recalled a jolly old drummer who had a reputation for tossing his drum sticks nimbly, and creating mirth in general while marching at the head of country parades.

Then it occurred to Willard that he could make a pictlire that would excite patriotic enthusiasm if he transferred his trio of country musicians to the battlefield. He threw aside his humorous sketches, and began to paint the picture called "Yankee' Doodle" or "The Spirit of '76."

His own father, a gray-haired Baptist minister, posed with the drum for the central figures Hugh Mosher, a farmer soldier who had blown his fife through the Civil War, was chosen as the fifer of the painting. He was the most famous fifer for miles around, and was always in demand at patriotic celebra tions. The picture caught and stirred the people at sight.

In the face of destiny the sturdy old man and his two companions marched on, oblivious to the fact that they marched alone. In the dim distance, the flag waved, and the column was rolling up. The army had rallied, and was following to the tune of °Yankee Doodle." Altogether it made a rousing public appeal, and there was a wide demand for copies of it.

At the close of the Philadelphia exhibition, the picture was bought by General Devereux for his home town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and there, in Abbot Hall, it still hangs. The purchase was a matter of sentiment, as well as art interest, for General Devereux's son, Henry Devereux, was the model for the young drummer boy in the picture.

Probably no other patriotic picture painted in America has had so wide a circulation as "The Spirit ot '76." It is known in every city, town and village, where it can be seen in frames, and on calendars, posters and mailing cards. It belongs now to the people—a picture in thousands of houses.

Willard continued to make sketches, with patriotic interest or with child life as their theme, until he passed away at his home in Cleveland, on the eleventh of October, 1918.

Source: THE MENTOR, Volume 9, Number 6, July 1, 1921, Pages 36-37

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