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‘Spirit of ’76’ alive and well in Port St. Joe

July 7, 2017

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (AP) — It is probably the most famous painting in American history: “The Spirit of ’76.”

It shows two drummers and a fife player marching with a 13-star U.S. flag, saluting the spirit of the American Revolution. It was painted for the 1876 U.S. Centennial, by Archibald Willard, of Wellington, Ohio.

For more than a century, it’s been a wildly popular image, emblazoned on posters, products and patriotic pastimes. During the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, it was used on a U.S. stamp. It ranks with the flag-raising at Iwo Jima during World War II as the most iconic American images.

And for nearly 40 years, Jay Stevens kept his “Spirit of ’76” painting in a closet - thinking it was just a copy and unaware it was an original painting possibly worth more than $1 million.

“We’ve seen as many ‘Willards’ as anyone and we really believe it’s the real deal,” said Scott Markel, a trustee of the Spirit of ’76 Museum in Wellington, Ohio. “We hope Jay gets a chance to tell the world his story.”

Stevens, 59, lives in Port St. Joe, a small coastal town in the Florida panhandle, about 100 miles southwest of Tallahassee. A longtime antiques and art dealer, Stevens moved back to his hometown 16 years ago to care for his ailing parents. His father died several years ago, his wheelchair-using mother will turn 90 in December.

The “Spirit of ’76” painting he owns is a watercolor version that is believed to be one of the numerous “original copies” Willard painted. Stevens bought it for $200 in the late 1970s, at an antiques market in Atlanta - spurred by his love of Americana and all things patriotic. The man who sold it to him claimed to have been given it by Willard’s grandson.

Having learned only this year the painting could be worth $500,000 to $2 million, Stevens wants to sell the painting. But he hopes to sell it to some public entity, such as the White House, which currently has only a copy of the painting.

“I hope it goes somewhere where the public can see it. I am a patriotic American and nothing is more patriotic than this painting,” Stevens said. “Mother and I need all the help we can get, and this is a godsend. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find.”

It also was a once-in-a-lifetime creation for its artist.

The best-known painting by the least known artist

Archibald Willard (1836-1918) was a resident of Wellington, Ohio, a small town in northern Ohio, 30 miles south of Lake Erie. Willard fought in the Civil War as a member of the 86th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Before and after the war, he was a wagon painter for a Wellington horse-drawn carriage maker.

He soon became a full-time artist, painting landscapes, portraits, historic scenes, humorous sketches and building murals. But he never produced anything as renowned as “Spirit of ’76,” and his name is dimly known outside of art circles.

“We like to say, it’s ‘the best-known painting by the least known artist,’” Markel said. “Everybody knows the painting when they see it, but they don’t know who it’s by.”

Willard’s art career took off in the early 1870s when he met J.F. Ryder, who ran a photography studio and art gallery in nearby Cleveland. Ryder was impressed by Willard’s artistic abilities, and they formed a partnership, selling humorous sketches and posters drawn by Willard.

In 1875, as America approached its 100th anniversary, Ryder encouraged Willard to produce a piece for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Willard began work on his famous painting, moving to Cleveland to complete the large 8-foot-by-10-foot oil painting.

Willard based the scene on summer picnics in Wellington, when veterans from the War of 1812 drank rum all day and by evening were mock-marching and playing their drums and fifes.

The painting originally was named, “Yankee Doodle,” because, as Willard said later, “That’s the tune I hear when I look at it.” He used people he knew as models:

The drummer in the center was his father, Rev. Samuel Willard. The fife player on the right was his boyhood friend and fellow Civil War soldier, Hugh Mosher. The boy on the left was Henry Devereaux, a cadet at a Wellington military academy. Even the often-overlooked fallen soldier in the foreground was based on a pair of Wellington residents.

Originally, the piece was meant to be humorous, and the men were portrayed marching in a light-hearted manner. But in 1875, Willard’s father grew ill; he died before the painting was completed. Willard adjusted the painting to have a more somber tone to reflect the “dignity and fortitude and moral heroism of my father.”

Even so, when the painting was displayed at the Philadelphia exhibition, it was put in a room separate from the rest of the art exhibits, because officials didn’t think it represented serious art.

But the painting was wildly popular. Thousands of people poured into the room to view the painting, with many returning several days in a row. U.S. President Ulysses Grant arrived late one evening, as Willard repaired a small tear caused by the jostling crowds. The 18th president was moved by what he saw.

After the exhibition, the painting went on exhibit in Boston - where it was renamed “Spirit of ’76” - then later was on display in Washington, D.C. In 1880, Wellington railroad magnate John Devereaux, father of the cadet in the painting, purchased the artwork for $5,000 - “a ridiculous amount of money then,” Markel said. Devereaux donated it to his hometown, Marblehead, Mass., where the giant painting still hangs in the town hall.

“Spirit of ’76” soon became one of the most copied paintings in American history, even as art historians derided it as cartoonish and criticized its commercial popularity. One critic snorted, “The number of people who saw it (on exhibition) is dwarfed by the number who came to own copies.”

Painter created more than one “original”

Willard would go on to paint several more versions of “Spirit of ’76” for family members, friends and even one for President Grant - creating a host of “original paintings.”

Those “originals” often varied. Though Willard always repeated the basic scene of the three men marching and the soldier on the ground, he added different background features to subsequent paintings. The copies varied in size (though none were as big as the first in 1876). He painted numerous versions in watercolor, rather than oil, especially for family members.

But Willard did not keep a record of his additional “originals,” and the number has never been certain.

Markel says today the number is estimated at between 18 and 26 “originals.” There is one at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C., one at Cleveland City Hall and one in the Wellington city library. Others belong to family members or private collectors - and Markel has no doubt Stevens owns one of the “originals.”

Earlier this year, Stevens learned about the “Spirit of ’76” museum, which was founded in 1958. He sent the museum photographs and a letter, detailing all he knew about his painting. Markel was electrified: Everything Stevens described fit what the museum knew about Willard, or is described in a 1976 biography of Willard, “Spirit of ’76, An American Portrait,” by his great-great nephew Willard F. Gordon.

Markel believes the painting Stevens owns is one Willard did for his oldest daughter, Maud, who died in 1922. It was then owned by her son, Willard Connolly, the only grandchild and only direct heir of Archibald Willard.

The painting includes several background features not found in other renditions, such as a munitions house and a group of soldiers believed to be the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, the famous Revolutionary War unit whose members included Willard’s grandfather.

Most significantly, the painting has unique identifying marks. On the back of the painting, there are framing instructions signed by a “Mrs. Maud.”

“Everything about Jay’s story checks out,” said Markel, who hasn’t seen the painting in person but has seen photos and talked with Stevens numerous times. “There is no way he would have known all the information he did, if he didn’t get it from the source.”

An antiques sale yields patriotic gold

Stevens’ late father was a banker, who oversaw estate sales for clients who died. An only child, Stevens often tagged along, developing an early appreciation for antiques and artwork - and Americana.

Stevens is a divorced father of a 28-year-old daughter. He lives with his mother, Peggy, a retired registered nurse, in a three-bedroom home a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico. The house is stuffed with antique furniture, paintings, clocks and Americana. Stevens is a craftsman who also makes antique- and Americana-styled clocks, furniture and mirrors.

He lived for nearly 20 years in Atlanta, working for a department store while buying and selling antiques. He attended community college and the University of Florida, dropping out seven hours short of a degree in agricultural engineering.

A large, friendly and gregarious man, Stevens bought the painting sometime in the late 1970s, while visiting a girlfriend in Atlanta. While attending an antiques show, he saw a grizzled old man sell a valuable-looking chest of drawers to a customer and Stevens asked him what else he had.

The man brought out the “Spirit of ’76” painting. He said it was a copy of the famous painting and said it had been given to him by the painter’s grandson, a fellow veteran he befriended at a Tampa veterans hospital.

Markel said that fits with what is known about Connolly, a World War I veteran who died in 1961 in Sanford, Fla., and is buried in a national cemetery in St. Petersburg. Though the specific painting is not mentioned in Gordon’s book, he writes Connolly gave away all the paintings he owned by his grandfather before his death.

Stevens said the man who sold him the painting told him he was trying to earn enough money to return to his native Ohio.

“He looked like he could use a bath and a little money,” Stevens said. “I was worried about him even driving.”

The man wanted $1,000 for the painting, whose glass and frame were cracked.

But Stevens had only $300, and figured he needed $100 of that for his last two days in Atlanta and the drive back to Port St. Joe. He offered the man $200, and the man accepted the offer.

He never asked the man’s name or any further questions about the painting - “I was young; I didn’t ask him all the things I should have.” But he was excited, because the painting fed his great love for all things American.

“It really gave me a feeling in the gut,” Stevens said. “I thought: I might be broke when I get home, but I’ll have a patriotic image I will love forever.”

An original copy could be worth millions

A few months later, Stevens took the painting to an Atlanta art dealer. The dealer cleaned up a couple of discolorations, put a new frame and glass on it - and suggested it might be valuable. The dealer said it was “really old,” and showed Stevens the signature of “A.M. Willard,” which Stevens had missed because the signature was so faint.

Over the years, Stevens learned more about Willard and the fact he made additional original copies. But many years ago, he showed it to another art dealer, who insisted his painting must be a copy because all of Willard’s originals were owned by institutions or collectors.

“So I dismissed the idea and quit researching; I figured it was a copy, like from a machine” said Stevens, who nonetheless kept it in a dark closet to prevent it from fading.

But late last year, talking with a fellow art dealer in Virginia, he was encouraged to try again. The Virginia dealer said he had sold many paintings that took many years and many experts to authenticate. So early this year, Stevens renewed his search and sent a letter to the Spirit of ’76 museum.

Markel responded with enthusiasm, and Stevens is now buoyed by the optimism of a possible windfall.

In 2005, an Alabama philanthropist paid a record $1.5 million for a “Spirit of ’76” original oil painting. A New York art gallery currently has one listed for $1.8 million.

Though two watercolor versions of the painting are on display at a Cleveland museum, Markel and Stevens agree the one Stevens owns is more vivid and has features the others don’t. They both note the strong family ownership connection, having passed from Willard to his daughter to his only grandchild.

They think those features will figure prominently in any sale.

“I don’t think a half-million ($500,000) would be unreasonable,” Markel said. “The only thing holding it back is it was unknown (among art dealers). But what it’s got going for it is that story.”

Stevens is excited over the possibility of a big payday. But regardless what happens, he will forever be grateful to have bought the painting.

“My family and I are patriotic Americans, and there is nothing more patriotic than this painting,” he said. “Every time I look at that image, I feel so patriotic, I want to put a flag in every room.”

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Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com

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