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: A Naval Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Two vivid, full-blooded figures in the history of American art and warfare collaborated to produce a stirring naval portrait recently acquired for the permanent collection through the Dunwoody Fund. They were John Wesley Jarvis, one of the most popular portraitists in New York during the early years of the nineteenth century, and Captain Samuel Chester Reid of the United States Navy, who was the designer of the present form of the American flag. In view of the coming celebration of Flag Day, the display of this painting of Captain Reid with the Stars and Stripes is especially timely.The portrait is painted with the verve and conviction characteristic of Jarvis’ best work. It presents the Captain in a three-quarter view facing the spectator, his sword in his right hand and his left grasping the scabbard from which he has drawn it. Thrust through a belt decorated with the silver eagle of the United States are two pistols in elaborate cuffed holsters. The uniform against which these arms stand out is sober enough in color, but its cut lends it a dandified air that would seem ill-suited to a naval engagement. The double-breasted coat is adorned with two rows of brass buttons below a wide-spreading collar finished with a narrow turnover band of yellow silk. Beneath is a soft white shirt whose wide neckband is swathed with a black silk cravat. The collar itself is narrow, forming an effective contrast to the ruddy face above. Topping off this uniform is a stiff, brimmed hat that rests easily on the Captain’s head. His face, the focal point of the composition, is attractive and vividly alive, with a devil-may-care expression that aptly reflects his character. Above the Captain’s head, to the right, the Stars and Stripes flutter in the breeze.The portrait was painted in 1815, probably soon after Reid’s return from a successful and daring engagement with the British off the Azores. Samuel Chester Reid, the son of a British Naval officer, was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1783. He went to sea as a youth, was captured by a French privateer, and was imprisoned for six months in Guadeloupe. He afterward served as an acting midshipman in a West India squadron, and was subsequently given the command of the privateer brig, “General Armstrong,” with which he fought his great naval battle at Fayal in the Azores during the war of 1812. He was attacked by a British squadron while lying at anchor in a neutral port. In the engagement that followed he utterly defeated the enemy despite its superior numbers. The British lost 120 men killed and 180 wounded; the Americans lost two killed and seven wounded, but Reid was obliged to order his badly damaged ship scuttled to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy. An English witness to the encounter gives a vivid description of the second attack in the engagement, which terminated, in his opinion, in an almost total massacre of the British. During the bloody engagement, which lasted about 40 minutes, the Americans fought with great firmness, and the witness concludes by saying, “We may as well say, ‘God deliver us from our enemies’ if this is the way the Americans fight.”The extreme importance of the engagement lay in the fact that the vessels defeated by Captain Reid were part of an expedition proceeding to Jamaica to join in a descent on New Orleans. Their crippled condition prevented their immediate union with Admiral Sir Alexander F. J. Cochrane, and gave General Andrew Jackson time to reach New Orleans before them. As a result, Louisiana was saved from the British. It is little wonder that Reid, who landed at Savannah on his return, was showered with honors as he made his way northward. In recognition of his great victory the New York legislature gave him, on April 7, 1815, their thanks and a sword. It is possibly this very sword that is shown in Jarvis’ portrait of the hero.Following the war of 1812, Reid was appointed a sailing-master in the Navy. In the meanwhile he served as harbor-master and warden of the port of New York. He invented and erected the signal telegraph at the Battery and the Narrows, and established the lightship off Sandy Hook, that familiar and welcoming landmark to generations of Americans returning from abroad. Reid’s suggestion for a new design for the American flag was not made until 1818. In consideration of the glory lately won by the Stars and Stripes a brief review of its history may be interesting.The Stars and Stripes is one of the oldest national standards in the world. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Constitutional Congress resolved “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” This flag, flown by Captain John Paul Jones in the “Ranger,” received its first salute from a foreign state at Quiberon Bay in France in 1778. When Vermont and Kentucky were admitted to the Union they were anxious to be included in the symbolism of the flag, and Congress provided that from the first day of May, 1795, the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes, and that the Union be fifteen stars in a blue field. This was the flag by which the United States was everywhere represented for twenty-two years. It was the victorious flag in thirteen out of the eighteen naval battles of the war of 1812, and it was this flag which inspired the words of the Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry in 1814.In 1818 Captain Reid proposed that the design of the flag should return to the original thirteen stripes alternately red and white, and that a new star be added to the blue field whenever a new state should be admitted to the Union. On April 4, 1818, President Monroe signed a bill providing that the flag take such form from July 4, 1818. The first flag of the present design, made by Reid’s wife, was raised over the Capitol on April 12, 1818. The exact proportions of the flag were not fixed until 1916, when President Wilson established them by executive order, and it was through proclamation issued by President Wilson in 1916 and by President Coolidge in 1927, that June 14, the birthday of the first national standard in 1777, began to be observed as Flag Day.The exploits of Captain Reid, his audacity, and his insistence, despite the odds against him, on the rights due the ship he commanded, must have made him an unusually sympathetic subject for Jarvis. His portrait of Reid has the direct and life-like character for which his work is generally notable, and which was singularly refreshing in a period when the influence of the English school of portraiture threatened to stifle native talent.Jarvis was a hearty, generous, unregenerate creature who must have chilled the blood of his uncle, the great Methodist John Wesley, for whom he was named and with whom he lived in England while his parents established themselves in Philadelphia. When he was five years old he came to this country to join them. He had no formal training in art, but spent his time, when he was not in school, in the shops and studios of painters of all types then working in Philadelphia. Occasionally these painters put him to work, and it was through them that he learned to use a brush. When the time came for Jarvis to choose a vocation he decided to become an engraver rather than a painter. The practice he thus acquired in draughtsmanship stood him in good stead when he finally turned to oils. He was apprenticed to the print-maker Savage, and by the time he was twenty years old had become an engraver of some stature. When his apprenticeship was completed Jarvis went to New York, where he and another artist, Joseph Wood, formed a partnership. Their chief income was derived from making silhouettes, then a popular form of art, and they fared well. Jarvis was soon dissatisfied, however. He decided to give up the flourishing silhouette business and make himself a painter. He had some instruction from the miniaturist Malbone, and was soon established as a miniature painter. In this field, too, he prospered, numbering among his clients many of the old New York aristocracy. Eventually he turned from miniatures to larger portraits in oil. Fortune still favored him. His portraits, executed in a free, assured style, have an authenticity that sets them apart from the work of other portraitists of his time. Jarvis set his own style, preparing himself for his profession of portraiture with an extended study of anatomy and phrenology. His aim was to paint people as they were. He succeeded so admirably that clients flocked to his studio.Jarvis’ convivial nature was a tremendous asset in his work. During the time that he lived with Wood in New York the two artists appear to have kept perpetual open house, entertaining lavishly if not always elegantly. Invitations to their Bohemian ménage were eagerly sought and as long as it was in operation hospitality was dispensed generously. Jarvis’ interest in people, together with his practice of observing them closely in all walks of life, contributed enormously to the realistic quality of his portraits. His fame spread to Baltimore, Washington, and as far south as New Orleans. Clients flocked to him when word of his presence in these cities got around, and he often had six sitters a day. The pressure under which he worked, combined with his love of high living, resulted in physical and artistic collapse. But before his life ended in squalid surroundings at the age of fifty-four he had enriched American painting with a series of vital historical portraits, many of them now in the New York City Hall and the New York Historical Society, which show him to have been one of the most original of our early artists. The portrait of Samuel Chester Reid is one of this group.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Samuel Chester Reid, designer of the present United States flag. By John Wesley Jarvis, American, 1780-1839. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A Naval Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 34, no. 22 (June, 1945): 74-78.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009