One late night in May, Philip Mead was looking for historical objects from the American Revolution. He noticed a painting being offered for sale on the internet.
Suddenly, he felt his heartbeat speeding up.
Mead is the chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The painting is an unsigned watercolor from 1782. It shows the army tent that George Washington had used as his command center during the Revolutionary War. And, to Mead, this seemed to be the only known artwork from that period to show this tent.
The painting is the top exhibit at the museum, which opened in April 2017. And, thanks to Mead, the museum now owns the painting, which will be the centerpiece of a show next year.
Mead said the discovery seemed almost “too good to be true.”
“I’ve had this level of excitement only a handful of times in my 30 years of looking for this stuff,” he said.
When Mead saw the tent painting, he immediately emailed the image to Scott Stephenson.
Stephenson serves as the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming. He said his heart jumped when he realized what the painting was.
The next step was to quickly find people willing to donate money to buy the painting, which was up for auction. It was to be sold just days after Mead’s discovery.
He and Stephenson were concerned that they might not be the only people to have seen the rare work. And they were not sure the painting was exactly what they'd hoped. But they still followed their plan.
The painting got only one other bidder. And so, the Museum of the American Revolution easily bought the painting for $12,000. Then, museum workers studied the picture and confirmed that it shows the Continental Army’s fall encampment at Verplanck’s Point, New York.
The painter was a French-born engineer, Pierre L’Enfant. He served in the Continental Army.
L’Enfant was wounded at the Siege of Savannah and taken prisoner at the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina. When released, he went back to serve with Washington for the rest of the war. Years later, he worked on planning the design for Washington, D.C.
The painting shows hundreds of military tents across the hills of New York's Hudson Valley. On the left side is Washington’s field command center, including the tent.
Most artwork about the war was created after it, historians say. So the images didn’t necessarily show real events.
Mead said having a painting by L'Enfant is "like having a Google Street View look at a Revolutionary War encampment."
Although L'Enfant did not sign the painting, it is similar to one he made in 1782 of troops at West Point, New York. The family who cared for L’Enfant at the end of his life gave it to the United States Library of Congress.
The appearance, the dates of both paintings, and handwriting helped to confirm L'Enfant as the painter.
Sometime in the past, the original tent painting was cut into six pieces of paper and placed into a folder. An expert is working to clean the painting and put the pieces back together so it can be shown as it was meant to.
It will be the central piece of an exhibit called “Among His Troops: Washington’s War Tent in a Newly Discovered Watercolor.”
The exhibition will open on January 13, 2018.
To offer visitors a more complete show, the museum is also borrowing the West Point painting from the Library of Congress.
I'm Alice Bryant.
Kristen de Groot reported this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted her report for VOA Learning Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
tent – n. a portable shelter that is used outdoors, is made of cloth and is held up with poles and ropes
exhibit – n. a presentation or showing
handful – n. an amount that you can hold in your hand
auction – n. a public sale at which things are sold to the people who offer to pay the most
bid – v. to offer to pay a specific amount of money for something that is being sold
original – n. that from which a copy or reproduction is made
folder – n. a folded cover or large envelope for holding documents