The Bloodless Battle Between the Dutch & Swedes, 1831 Collections of the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich
This painting appealed to me immediately when I saw it in digital form more than a decade ago. First of all it is a night scene, which is rare, secondly it reminded me of the technique of one of my favorite American artists, John Quidor (without fully showing his highly eccentric staccato compositional style) and third, it is a literary genre painting. I found out through the selling dealer that famous portraitist Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868) started his formal art studies in New York City in 1830 under Jonathan Trumbull, who initially discouraged him from pursuing art as a career and then working in the studio of John Quidor. In a story similar to that of Thomas Cole, he was “discovered” when three of his paintings placed for sale in a shop window attracted the attention and praise of Trumbull. According to his patroness and biographer, Mrs. Sylvanus Lewis, these early works depict Knickerbocker themes, one of them from James Kirke Paulding’s novel The Dutchman’s Fireside. Quidor largely devoted his career to images from Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, so Elliott’s choice of subject is not surprising. Although the current picture is not visibly signed, it is stylistically, thematically, and compositionally similar to two other Knickerbocker themes by the artist, one in the collections of the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, titled The Bloodless War Between the Dutch and Swedes; this seems to be the painting referred to by Mrs. Lewis in an article she published about Elliott as The Battle of Fort Christina, from Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The third is titled Incident from “The Knickerbocker Legend,” sold by Hirschl & Adler Galleries many years ago. In each of these, the depiction of round small stones on scattered on the ground, which cast shadows, is a distinct feature, as is the appearance of a man with a wooden leg. Similarly also is the inclusion of a crowd of figures interlocking in vigorous action or gesture, reminding one of John Quidor’s melodramatic, queer scenes. Finally, the present panel bears the owner’s name E. A. Lewis on verso along with a Brooklyn address, thereby corresponding to Mrs. Sylvanus (Estella Anna) Lewis, whose portrait Elliott also painted (collection of The New-York Historical Society). I find particularly charming the appearance of the serene and beautiful black woman shown at left, and the black toddler, early depictions of African Americans in a neutral, non-caricatural manner. This is one of my very favorite paintings and it hangs above my desk. It should be said that Elliott became very famous for his portraits; doing many of famous writers, artists, politicians, and other prominent people of the day. Many of these are in prominent museums. Hence this early work, demonstrating the influence of Quidor and of artist-writer Thomas Bangs Thorpe, a mutual friend who also had a proclivity for Knickerbocker themes, is a rarity.