Birmingham Museum of Art Honors County Namesake with Commanding Portrait
War of 1812 hero Oliver Hazard Perry takes his place in BMA’s American Gallery
The Birmingham Museum of Art recently added a painting to its American Gallery that has special resonance in Perry County: a portrait of the county’s namesake, American Naval hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. The portrait strikingly depicts Perry (1785 – 1819), popularly known as the “Hero of Lake Erie,” for his role in achieving a decisive victory against the British at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
In the battle, fought on September 10, 1813, off the coast of Ohio, Perry and his compatriots captured six British ships and ensured American control of the lake for the remainder of the war. After the battle, Perry wrote to General William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841), later ninth president of the United States, informing him of the victory with the now famous words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Founded just a few years after the war, in 1819, Perry County was named in honor of Oliver Hazard Perry, as were counties in nine other states, and numerous other geographic locations.
The portrait of Perry at the BMA was painted in 1857 by Jane Stuart, the youngest daughter of Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828), who is perhaps best known for his portraits of George Washington. Jane Stuart’s Perry portrait is based on an earlier bust-length version (1818-28, Toledo Museum of Art), which her father began and which Jane completed after his death. Both artist and subject were native Rhode Islanders and the portrait was one of nine portraits of the distinguished men of Rhode Island presented to Brown University on August 21, 1857.
“In the portrait, Perry wears the insignia badge of the Society of the Cincinnati—commonly called the eagle—suspended from a light blue ribbon trimmed in white protruding from his coat, “ said Graham Boettcher, Ph.D., the Museum’s Curator of American Art. “Founded in 1783, the Society originally consisted of American and French officers who had served in the Revolutionary War, with membership subsequently passed down through their direct male descendants. Although Perry’s father had served as a midshipman during the Revolution, his service was too brief to qualify him for membership. Following his brilliant victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry was made an honorary member of the Society in New York.”
The painting was spotted by a long-time friend and patron of the BMA, Henry Lynn, at the
important Rhode Island gallery, William Vareika Fine Arts. “Mr. Lynn was drawn to the painting not only because of the Commodore's commanding presence, but also because he wears the insignia badge of the Society of the Cincinnati,” Boettcher said. “His nephew, George Gambrill Lynn, Jr., who died suddenly in 2009, had been a member of the Society, and he thought it a fitting memorial to him.”
Lynn asked the gallery owner, Bill Vareika, to send information about the painting to Boettcher. Vareika replied that he could do one better and show it to Boettcher in person later that afternoon; Lynn did not realize that Boettcher was in Newport on business and had already made an appointment to visit Vareika's gallery.
The painting is important to Birmingham's collection for a number of reasons. In 2006, the Museum acquired a 1785 portrait of a British naval officer, John Jones of Frankley, by Gilbert Stuart, Jane Stuart's father. “The younger Stuart learned to paint by watching her father, so having the chance to compare the work of father and daughter in two paintings with such similar subjects is a unique opportunity,” Boettcher said, adding that “the work of 19th-century American women artists is not particularly well represented in the Museum's permanent collection, so having a painting by one of that era’s most successful female portraitists helps to address a gap in our collection.
"Beyond all the historical reasons to have the work," says Boettcher, "it just looks magnificent in the gallery. Commodore Perry definitely commands the viewer's attention."