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.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Henry Knox in Miniature?

One of the big themes of my presentation at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site’s Henry Knox Symposium last weekend was that we shouldn’t keep repeating what older books have said about Henry Knox’s early life.

Instead, we should look at the surviving evidence and think about what makes sense, even if it contradicts statements those books make without offering documentary support.

In that spirit, in my presentation I used this portrait of Knox from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I labeled it as “miniature said to show Henry Knox.”

That’s because I remembered hearing Matthew Keagle of Fort Ticonderoga, another speaker at the symposium, raise questions about this image a few years back.

I talked to Dr. Keagle again to make sure I get the details correctly as I take the liberty of repeating those questions. Basically, if we don’t repeat what older papers say about this portrait and look at its visual details, what does that evidence show us?
  • a plump man in a Continental Army uniform.
  • one epaulet, not two.
  • red facing lapels, not gold.
  • white waistcoat, not gold.
To be sure, it took a while for the Continental Army to develop uniform standards, but getting those details right mattered to Knox. He also the army as a colonel of artillery and was a general by the end of 1776, so the uniforms he wore reflected that high rank. The details of this picture don’t appear to match army standards.

The Met credits this miniature as a watercolor on ivory by Charles Willson Peale, who painted more portraits of Knox (two epaulets, gold facings and waistcoat, frankly fat) at the end of the war. This painting came to the museum as a gift in 1968 from J. William Middendorf, II, who was about to leave investment banking for work as a U.S. ambassador and Secretary of the Navy.

According to this catalogue of Middendorf’s collection as exhibited just before that gift, he had purchased the miniature from the estate of Philadelphia antiques dealer Arthur Sussel in 1959. And that seems to be as far back as the provenance goes. Perhaps there’s more in someone’s files.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is incredible that further verification wasn’t done on the Met’s part when they received it!