In the Centennial Exhibition mounted in Philadelphia in 1876, a large painting by a little-known Ohio painter appeared. At ten by eight feet, it would have caught the attention of any who chanced to see it in the Art Annex, but its visibility was ensured by the simultaneous publication of a chromolithograph purchased by thousands of visitors and by many thousands more from distributors across the country. The painting, then called Yankee Doodle, was the work of Archibald Willard, a one-time painter of wagons in Wellington, Ohio, who had entered into a business relationship with James F. Ryder, a Cleveland daguerreotypist and entrepreneur. Willard drew and painted humorous, anecdotal images, and Ryder sold photomechanical reproductions of them. Yankee Doodle also was conceived as a comic image of a Fourth of July celebration, but Willard decided instead upon a pulsating patriotic image.
For the reproduction of Yankee Doodle, Ryder enlisted the services of Clay, Cosack and Company, chromolithographic printers in Buffalo, New York. The printers charged only seventeen cents per print, and Ryder usually retailed the print for only two dollars, which guaranteed a large sales volume and a huge profit, since it was probably the most popular chromo ever produced in America.1Peter Marzio, The Democratic Art: Chromolithography, 1840–1910 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), 184–85. The small painting now in the State Department Collection is the model for the chromolithograph. Of the same dimensions and colors, it was painted by Willard as an exact guide for the printers. The State Department canvas is the first completed version of a much-replicated painting. Willard later wrote: “The first Yankee Doodle canvas was the regulation chromo size.” It was, he added, “a small one which was reproduced in chrome.”2Archibald Willard, quoted in Willard F. Gordon, “The Spirit of ‘76,” An American Portrait (Fallbrook, Calif.: Quail Hill Associates, 1976), 25. The first large painting was only finished a short time before the Centennial; that work is usually identified as the painting now at Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts. Willard painted the perfervid old drummer in the scene from a photograph of his late father, the Reverend Samuel Willard, taken by Ryder. The artist’s sentimental patriotism was clearly stirred by this image, which he combined with photographed heads of Hugh Mosher, a friend and fifer, and Henry Devereux, a cadet at Cleveland’s Brooks School.3Thomas H. Pauly, “In Search of ‘The Spirit of ‘76,’” American Quarterly 28, no. 4 (fall 1976): 457. The three generations movingly evoked are saluted by the dying soldier with a doffing of his cap. The flag seen through the smoke of battle behind them echoes the imagery of the national anthem.
This picture was born at the precise moment it was most needed. The Centennial was the first attempt at reviving a psychologically and economically depressed nation in the wake of the Civil War, and James Ryder, an inspired promoter, clearly understood this. In front-page newspaper ads on New Year’s Day, 1876, he declared that “a good sun will rise, HIGH IN THE HEAVENS, clear away the hanging mist, and give a golden tinge of restored prosperity to all.” And he closed “with an abiding faith in YANKEE DOODLE and a belief that AMERICA IS A SUCCESS.”4Ibid., 458. With that resounding affirmation he prepared the way for Willard’s Yankee Doodle chromo to capture the popular imagination. In 1879, while his large Centennial painting was on view in Boston, Willard renamed the image The Spirit of ‘76, the more historically resonant title by which it, the artist’s many painted replicas, and the chromolithograph have since been known.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.