J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, March 21, 2014

A Miniature Henry Knox

In Dealings with the Dead (1856), Lucius Manlius Sargent told this anecdote about the Rev. Mather Byles, Sr., a Loyalist minister who stayed in Boston after the siege and became notorious for being unable to resist a pun:
He was intimate with General [Henry] Knox, who was a bookseller, before the war. When the American troops took possession of the town, after the evacuation, Knox, who had become quite corpulent, marched in, at the head of his artillery.

As he passed on, Byles, who thought himself privileged, on old scores, exclaimed, loud enough to be heard—“I never saw an ox fatter in my life.” But Knox was not in the vein. He felt offended by this freedom, especially from Byles, who was then well known to be a tory; and replied, in uncourtly terms, that he was a “—— fool.”
That anecdote has been republished in biographies of both Knox and Byles, and in other books as well. It’s too good to resist.

But I’ve long wondered whether Henry Knox was really that fat at the time. The picture above shows a miniature of Gen. Knox by Charles Willson Peale, dated 1778 and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this image Knox, while not miniature, doesn’t appear any fatter than many other gentlemen of his time.

When Peale painted Knox again around 1784, the general’s face had grown noticeably more jowly.

That might have been a peak point for Knox’s weight because on 18 May 1788 Abigail Smith wrote to her mother, Abigail Adams: “The General is not half so fat as he was.” (In his 1873 biography of the general, Francis S. Drake combined this remark with what Smith wrote about Lucy Knox on 15 June 1788.) At that time Smith was returning to America after some years in Europe, so she was comparing Knox in 1788 with him a few years earlier.

Knox’s later portraits by Edward Savage around 1790 and and Gilbert Stuart are also on the heavy side. (Mid-nineteenth-century American artists shaved down Knox’s belly like magazine art directors using Photoshop.) There’s no question Knox was a big man, but in 1776, when he was still in his mid-twenties, was he truly as fat as an ox?


G. Lovely said...

The Knox portrait got me thinking about the 'hand in waistcoat' gesture seen in many 18th century paintings.

In addition to its classical allusions, the pose not only sped up the painting process, but I suspect, could also be employed, if neeeded, to help mask a seated subject's prominent belly. Add to that a painter's need to flatter his subject, and I would not be surprised to find Knox was actually considerably heftier than his portrait implies.

J. L. Bell said...

That comment speaks to something we always have to remember about eighteenth-century portraits: they're paintings, not photographs. So even though they can seem very realistic and individual, the artist wasn't necessarily recreating what he saw. He could paint an individual's head onto a generic body, or paint the head more flatteringly.

The fact that the same painter, Charles Willson Peale, portrayed Henry Knox's face much more plumply around 1784 than around 1778 suggests that he did see a difference, and the general accepted it. But perhaps Peale shaved a few pounds off Knox in the first portrait as the young general thought he could shed that weight. We can't know for sure.

J. L. Bell said...

Nancy Loane of Valley Forge sent along a helpful quotation from a letter from Gen. Nathanael Greene to his wife Caty in June 1778: “Mrs. Knox has been in Philadelphia and is now gone to Morristown. She is fatter than ever, which is a great mortification to her. The General is equally fat, and therefore one cannot laugh at the other.”

That suggests Lucy Knox was already known for being plump in the 1777-78 winter when Caty Greene visited her husband, but put on even more weight in the following months. And that Henry was also fat by that year.