Wrong Impression

I am absolutely fascinated by this c. 1780s mezzotint depicting the capture of Major John André which I recently found in the digital collections of the Winterthur Museum for several reasons: it is by a Salem artist, Samuel Blyth (1744-95), more primarily known for his heraldic paintings, musical instruments, and the fact that he was the older brother of the more prominent pastellist Benjamin Blyth(e), its naïve presentation, in which everyone looks strangely happy rather than surprised, and its lyrical title: Ye foil’d, ye baffled Brittons/This Behold nor longer urge your Pardons, Threats, or Gold; Seen in each virtuous Patriotic Zeal/ To save their country and promote its weal/ Disdaining bribes to wound a righteous Cause/ While ANDRE falls a victim to the laws.

Blythe print Winterthur

I am also interested in this image because it gets the essential detail of André’s capture—the fact that he was dressed in civilian clothes rather than a uniform, which led to his arrest, prosecution, and execution as a spy—wrong. The Major is clearly in uniform here, and the New York militiamen who captured him look a bit too “regular” as well. Contrast this with one of many depictions of the capture issued in the mid-nineteenth century, when everyone has their story–and image–straight (well nearly everyone: a Currier and Ives print somehow places George Washington in the scene). By that time, after Thomas Sully’s influential 1812 painting, André is uniformly uniform-less and boot-less, with the papers relating to the capture of West Point supplied by Benedict Arnold revealed.

Andre

Andre by Sully WAMCapture of Major John Andre by John Paulding, David Williams and Issac Vanwart, New York: Sowle and Shaw, 1845, Library of Congress; The Capture of Major André, Thomas Sully, 1812, Worcester Art Museum

Could Blyth’s mezzotint be the first image of André’s capture? I can’t find an earlier one, and that would be yet another Salem “first” (and first impressions are often wrong). This would explain his mistaken details–although he certainly has the bribery attempt down. What is the source of his vision, and his copy: the Foil’d and Baffled Brittons? Was he carving out a future for himself in the emerging industry of patriotic publishing? Apparently earlier mezzotints of George and Martha Washington once attributed universally to Boston printmaker Joseph Hiller might have been the work of Blyth: these images cast a man who has been primarily associated with rather elitist creations in a new, populist light—a Revolutionary transition doubtless made by many American artists.

Holyoke Coat of Arms

Blythe collage Holyoke Family Coat of Arms, late eighteenth century, attributed to Samuel Blyth, Northeast AuctionsLady Washington and His Excellency George Washington Esq., mezzotints after Charles Willson Peale, c. 1776-77, possibly Joseph Hiller or Samuel Blyth, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


4 responses to “Wrong Impression

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