Vienna Porcelain Platter and Plates Possibly Made for Joseph II of Austria
The event that inspired the painting of the unfinished original of this work was the signing of the Preliminary Articles of Peace between the United States and Great Britain in Paris, November 30, 1782. The final accord was only signed on September 3, 1783. Of the five men present on the first occasion—left to right, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin—only the first three were also signers of the Definitive Treaty in 1783. The right side of the painting was to have shown the British commissioner, Richard Oswald, a liberal Scots merchant and his secretary Caleb Whitefoord. The latter was available to West, but Oswald was said to have been “an ugly-looking man, blind in one eye, [who] died [November 1784] without leaving any picture of him extant.”1West to John Quincy Adams, recorded in Adams’s diary (June 1817). Von Erffa and Staley, 219, cat. no. 105. See also Karol Schmiegel, “Benjamin West and the American Commissioners,” Winterthur Newsletter 26, no. 3 (Fall 1983), 10.
Even before the Definitive Treaty was concluded, West planned “a set of pictures containing the great events which have affected the revolution of America. . . . This work I mean to do at my own expense and to employ the first engravers in Europe to carry them into execution, not having the least doubt . . . all will be interested in seeing the event so portrayed” (June 15, 1783).2Letter to Charles Willson Peale (quoted in Alberts, 150). Since The American Commissioners was the first in the planned series, the preliminary treaty was obviously considered to mark the de facto end of hostilities and the recognition of the new nation. Adams, Jay, and Laurens sat to West that winter. Since Franklin was unable to travel, Whitefoord, his longtime friend, brought a portrait of Franklin from Paris for West’s use. The painting was an updated copy by the young American Joseph Wright of a 1778 pastel by Joseph-Siffrede Duplessis.3Whitefoord’s letter to William Temple Franklin of June 30, 1784, contains the first mention of The American Commissioners (The Franklin Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia); see von Erffa and Staley, 218. The Wright portrait of Franklin (at the Yale University Art Gallery) was commissioned for Richard Oswald. Caleb Whitefoord had another copy made for himself, which he lent to West. Wright made at least five versions. See Sellers 1962, 151–54 and 414–22. West had it no later than June 1784. He had other portraits of Franklin as well, but the Wright was the pivotal image. William Temple Franklin (Benjamin’s grandson) sat in late August. Unable to get a likeness of Oswald, West apparently did not bother to take one of Whitefoord; at least none is known to exist. The artist did not finish the painting or continue the historical series.
The original painting of The American Commissioners, of which the Department of State canvas is a copy by an unidentified artist, is now at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. A third version, also a copy, descended in the Jay family and is now at the John Jay Homestead in Katonah, New York. It seems clearly to be second in priority, being in many key respects closer to the West original than is the Department of State’s copy.4The provenance of the Winterthur original is well established. Still in West’s studio at his death in 1820, it was sold by his sons at the second sale of his artistic estate, June 20–22, 1829, George Robins, London to Joseph Strutt, Derby, in whose family it remained until 1916 when it was acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan, from whom it passed in 1943 to Henry Francis du Pont (von Erffa and Staley, 218, cat. no. 105). The Jay copy was commissioned by George Grote (1794–1871), who presented it to John Jay (1817–1894), the grandson of the founding father. According to the younger Jay, citing Mrs. Grote, “when Mr. and Mrs. Grote visited at Derby, in 1835, . . . they saw at the house of . . . Joseph Strutt” the original painting. The copy may have been made soon after. Jay, writing near the end of this life, does not say when the Grotes presented the picture to him. Nathan Bowen, Account Book, 1775–1778, Joseph Downs Manuscript Collections (JDMC), 482.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.