Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Hero of New Orleans

America’s popular heroes owe a large measure of their immortality to the everyday artists who made their images ubiquitous. We have in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection an example of a watercolor and ink rendering that memorializes one of the great moments in the career of a military figure and politician, indeed the event that made him an American icon.

In December 1814 and January 1815, General Andrew Jackson won critical encounters against a larger British force to secure New Orleans (and the entire Louisiana Purchase, comprising most of the American West) from falling into enemy hands. Although the battles largely took place after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, the American victories persuaded the British to comply with the treaty without the need for additional hostilities.

Jackson became an immediate hero; the country began celebrating January 8th as the anniversary of the battle, and nine years later Jackson ascended to the presidency of the United States. It was during his campaign for a second term in 1832 that a Connecticut printmaker named Daniel Wright Kellogg issued a lithograph that showed Jackson, “The Hero of New Orleans,” (above) astride a rearing horse reminiscent of the famous image of Napoleon crossing the Alps painted by Jacques Louis David in 1805 (below). Kellogg’s prints found their way into homes across the United States, and helped to solidify Jackson’s military legacy as well as his political future.

Somehow, one such print found its way into the hands of a young woman named Betsy Wellman, and she was inspired enough by the subject and composition that she decided to make her own version (see the image at the top of this post). And what she created is amazing. Jackson’s horse is drawn in intricate calligraphic flourishes and tight stippling, while his saddle blanket and bags are recast in bright, bold patterns of color and line. The result is a perfect blend of watercolor highlights on a confidently rendered ink drawing. A homegrown hero brought to life with artistic techniques known to every schoolchild.

We actually own another version of the same subject by an unidentified artist (above), probably done at about the same time as Betsy Wellman’s (ca. 1840). This drawing really emphasizes the calligraphy, which gives it a more lively appearance but without the bold composition.

Taken together, the two folk art pieces show how ordinary people, borrowing from other artists and using their distinctive skills, greatly embellished the visual legacy of the arts in America. At the same time, they may have had an important role in shaping the country’s political future. It’s hard to trump a folk hero.


  1. Somewhat on subject, I bought a watercolor sometime ago at an auction of a striking watercolor. The more I looked at it the more familiar it seemed until I picked up my copy of the Knopf Folk Art guide book and saw a painting attributed to Elizabeth Glaser called "Lady in yellow dress watering roses" and saw a , not identical, but similar painting. I racked my brain as to the explanation, including the idea that there may have been a similarly popular print of that day that these women may have copied. I have had no luck on my research and am considering what I have to be a fake although physically it looks and feels right. Any tips for examining watercolors, etc?

  2. It might help to look for a watermark in the paper to see if it is 20th century. there are reference books where you can look up the watermark. you need to hold the paper up to a light source to find the mark, and sometimes there isn't one to be found. otherwise you need to have a paper conservator look it over. if you want to send me a jpeg at p.dambrosio@nysha.org i would be happy to tell you what i think just by using my eye.

  3. Thank you for writing back. I will try and lightbox it tonight if I can get it out of the brittle frame. Will also send an image to your email soon. Thanks again!


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