It is the July 4th season and with local celebrations and fireworks, the Spirit of ’76 seems alive and well in Gulf County.
Particularly for one local resident.
Sometime in the early 1980’s, Port St. Joe native Jay Stevens was visiting friends in Atlanta.
Always interested in antiques and art, Stevens noticed an outdoor market and pulled in.
Stevens began talking to a gentleman who was selling a piece of art out of the back of a station wagon. The young man from Port St. Joe was drawn to the piece and its patriotic composition and asked the man about the work.
“I loved it because I thought it was just beautiful and I’ve always been into Americana,” Stevens said.
The elderly gentleman didn’t know much about the work, but he informed Stevens that he had been friends with the artist’s grandson and that the piece had been handed down until the grandson had given the work to him.
Stevens asked the man for the price and was told $1,000.
But Stevens was strapped for cash and could only offer the man $200 he had saved away for his visit with friends.
The man accepted and Stevens wrapped the piece in a towel to protect it from the Atlanta rain.
Archibald Willard was born in Bedford, Ohio in 1836.
In 1863, Willard volunteered for the 86th Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War, and during that time he began to sketch the scenes around him.
After the war, Willard decided to settle on art as a profession and began to sell humorous sketches of his surroundings.
Willard’s sketches caught the eye of a local businessman, James F. Ryder, who encouraged the artist to compose a piece for the upcoming centennial celebration.
Willard set to work on the piece and for inspiration used a previous sketch he had made of the militia gatherings that he remembered from his childhood.
While the original sketch was humorous in tone, Willard set to make a more solemn version and chose three models to center his painting around.
The first was a young boy named Henry K. Devereux, who Willard had seen winning a drill completion for the Brooks Military Academy.
The second model, Hugh Moser, was a childhood friend of Willard and had also served during the Civil War where he received grave wounds. Moser was famed throughout the region for his fife playing and Willard included that detail in the work.
Willard’s last model was his father, Samuel Willard. The aging reverend was nearing the end of his life.
When Willard completed the piece, which he called Yankee Doodle, it was placed on display at Ryder’s gallery and received so much attention Ryder had to move the work to the back of the gallery, as not to block the entrance.
With the work receiving so much attention in Cleveland, it was decided to ship the piece to Philadelphia to participate in the Centennial International Exhibition.
Deemed inferior by the art critics at the exhibition, “Yankee Doodle” was placed away from the other works of art in the Memorial Hall but quickly became a sensation.
During the exhibition, an elderly woman had accidentally been pushed into the painting, with her umbrella causing a tear. Later that evening Willard set to work mending his piece.
Consumed by work, and using only lantern light, Willard didn’t notice a sole man who came to view the work in private.
The man, who had stood for some time gazing at the work, was Ulysses S. Grant, the President of the United States and famed Civil War general.
A real find
Stevens spent the weekend with his friends in Atlanta, all the time with a watercolor painting sitting in the backseat of his car.
He returned to Port St. Joe and examined the work for any damage that may have been caused by the rain in Atlanta. There was none, but Stevens couldn’t wrap his mind around what had drawn him to the piece that seemed to be growing on him.
He put the work away for awhile but kept going back to the piece.
Five months later, Stevens took the work to Boy Dixie Art and Restoration in Roswell, Georgia to have it reframed and matted.
The owner of the art store informed Stevens that the work was not from the 1700’s as he had hoped for, but was from the 1800’s and was a copy of a painting called “Spirit of ‘76” by Archibald Willard.
Stevens returned home and began researching the artist.
He discovered that after the Philadelphia exhibition, Willard’s work had achieved superstar status, and was reproduced many times and printed throughout the country as a patriotic image.
But Stevens also learned the artist himself had made “copies” by hand and had either sold them away or given them to family members.
Looking under the mat, Stevens noticed a faint signature of the artist and on the back of the piece handling directions signed Mau.
Researching further into the matter, Stevens learned that Willard had one child named Maude, and that Maude had one child named Willard Ryder Connolly.
Connolly was from Ohio like his grandfather, but had moved to Florida and passed away at the Sanford VA Hospital.
Remembering back to the rainy day in Atlanta when he had purchased the painting, Stevens recalled that the man who he bought the piece from had said that a fellow veteran had given him the work while he was at the VA hospital, and that fellow veteran had told him that he was the grandson of the artist who painted the piece.
“He (Willard) did different versions of this Sprit painting,” Stevens said, “Some were done as commissions, others were done for family.”
Stevens sent a description and photographic evidence to the Spirit of ’76 Museum in Wellington, Ohio.
After looking over the work, members of that museum’s staff pointed out some unique attributes to the painting in Stevens’ possession.
The first unique characteristic is the inclusion of a powder magazine.
Another is the inclusion of a cannonball in the foreground. Willard only painted cannonballs into the work if it was destined for a family member or a family member of one of the models.
The third, and perhaps the most important characteristic, according to the museum, is the fact that the work represents five generations of the Willard family.
To the right of the central characters is a representation of the Green Mountain Boys, who fought during the revolution. Willard’s grandfather was a member of that celebrated group.
The connection to the other generations would be the use of his father as a model, the artist himself, and the gifting of the work to the daughter, and then the grandson.
In 2006, an oil copy of “Spirit of ‘76” painted by Willard himself in 1912 was auctioned at Christie’s in New York City.
The price when the gavel fell was $1.5 million.
While Stevens believes that the piece in his possession could fetch a high asking price, he said that isn’t why he is bringing the work out into the light.
According to Stevens, the main reason for publicizing the piece is the fact that his mother is nearing 90 years old, and he would like her to see the work draw the attention he believes it deserves.
“With her almost being 90 years old, I just think it’s time to, if nothing, give her a little recognition for putting up with me all these years,” Stevens said.
Stevens also believes that the time is right for a patriotic image and has offered the work to the White House for display.