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Object Details

Michele Felice Cornè (Italian, American, 1752-1845)
United States: Massachusetts: Salem
North American
oil on canvas
Overall: 36 in x 56 in; 91.44 cm x 142.24 cm
Elias Hasket Derby, Jr.; by descent through the Derby family; to Thomas D. and Constance R. Williams, of Litchfield, Connecticut; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Signed and dated at the lower right, "Michael Crone Pinxit in 1803" and inscribed December 22-/-1620- at lower center on rock
Credit Line
Funds donated by the National Art Association of Los Angeles
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

Corné was one in the uncountable cavalcade of artists who came to America to escape political upheaval or oppression and to further their fortunes. Born on Elba, he was probably trained as a decorative painter in Naples, a fertile source of artist-craftsmen in the eighteenth century. We know that Corné was serving in the Neapolitan army, which futilely resisted the French invasion at the outset of 1799. 

The Napoleonic army held Naples until Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet drove them out in June. To escape the ensuing turmoil, Corné managed to gain passage on an American merchant ship, the Mount Vernon, whose master was Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., of Salem, Massachusetts.1Little, ix: “As has been recounted, in a letter to the editors reportedly printed in a Boston newspaper of the 1870s, he ‘took refuge’ on the ship while she was lying at Naples. This reminiscence must have been written by Elias Hasket Derby III, who as a boy had known Corné . . .” Sailing from Naples on November 8, the vessel reached Salem on July 7, 1800. Corné apparently secured his passage in exchange for paintings of the Mount Vernon either in the Bay of Naples or engaged in sea battles. Thus began his American career.2Ibid., 8,10. At least eight such paintings have survived, inscribed “Naples 1799.”

In Salem, Corné painted portraits of people and ships, seascapes, and landscapes, first for the Derbys and then for other leading families. Many commissions probably came from Corné’s frequent association with Samuel McIntire, the city’s leading carver and architect.3Wilmerding Marine Painting, 70. Sometime in 1807 the painter moved to Boston, and in 1822, at the age of seventy, he moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he died in 1845.4Little, xiv, reported that Corné’s gravestone in Newport’s “Old Cemetary [sic]” bears an “inscription which records his death on 10 July 1845, age ninety-three, proving that his year of birth may definitely be accepted as 1752.” It is repeated here because later publications have sometimes given different dates, including ca. 1752.

Corné painted perhaps as many as five versions of The Landing of the Pilgrims. His inspiration, for composition as well as subject, was apparently an engraving by Samuel Hill, which may have existed independently as a mezzotint, but served as the invitation to the first meeting (December 22, 1800) of a group of Bostonians, the Sons of the Pilgrims. The Hill engraving was also the source for several Chinese reverse paintings on glass created for the export trade, but since Corné’s representation in the Collection is dated 1803, it almost certainly is based directly upon the Hill engraving and not upon one of the (later) Chinese versions. Because none of Corné’s other versions is dated, this can be considered his earliest known painting of the subject. It was probably executed for his first patron, Derby, since it seems to have descended in the family.5See Crossman and Strickland, 777–78.

Corné (following Hill) portrayed a fanciful Plymouth: the marshes of reality are exchanged for rugged rocks, the landing party wears British uniforms (and some sport French hats of the Napoleonic era), the Union Jack flies from the ship at anchor, and a scattering of Indians awaits the pilgrims on shore, though none was in fact encountered. Still, the site is identifiable if not exactly recognizable: Plymouth, with its fabled rock on which a sailor stands; Long Beach, off which the ship is moored; and Clark’s Island in the distance. The commemorative nature of the painting is clear from the inscription on Plymouth Rock, “Dec. 22/1620.” 

William Kloss 

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.