Accession number(s): 76.5.1
Object: Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses
Material: Oil on canvas, gilded pine wood frame
Country: United States
Maker: Peter Frederick Rothermel
Provenance: Peter F. Rothermel (1812-1895) to Philadelphia Art Union to Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874) to Charles L. Hamilton (d. 1932) to Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation
Description: Peter Frederick Rothermel was born on July 8, 1812, in Nescopeck, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was trained as a land surveyor, but began studying painting at age 22. Starting as a sign painter, he studied briefly with John R. Smith (1775-1849) and Bass Otis (1775-1861). He embarked on his artistic career as a portrait painter, but soon became interested in historical painting. His first popular success was De Soto Discovering the Mississippi in 1843. Rothermel was active in art societies and associations in Philadelphia, including serving as a director and instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He died in Linfield, PA on August 15, 1895.
Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses secured Rothermel’s immediate and lasting fame as a historical painter. It was commissioned as a benefit for the Philadelphia Art Union in 1851. The Art Union was suffering under grave financial difficulties in 1851 resulting from a depressed economy and a fire. Rothermel chaired a group of thirty-five artists who pledged to contribute paintings valued at a minimum of $500. Rothermel contributed Patrick Henry for a commission of $1,000.
Patrick Henry had delivered one of his most famous speeches before the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 29, 1765. Opposing the Stamp Act, he had introduced several resolutions asserting the rights of the colonies to make their own laws. His famous speech, popularized by William Wirt’s book, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817), is the subject of Rothermel’s painting. Rothermel depicted Patrick Henry at the conclusion of his fiery oratory as he declared, “Caesar had his Brutus – Charles the first, his Cromwell – and George the third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” In Rothermel’s painting, the audience is moved by Henry’s impassioned words. The artist’s composition is dramatic yet sophisticated, and leaves little (if any) doubt that he had closely studied the works of High Renaissance and Baroque painters Titian and Rubens. Although not entirely historically accurate, Rothermel’s portrayal captured the romanticism of the nineteenth century and the patriotic zeal influencing Americans during this period.
The Philadelphia Art Union listed Rothermel’s painting as the first prize for members in 1852. Subscribers received a copy of Alfred Jones’ engraving of the painting and a chance to win the original in a raffle in exchange for a $5 membership fee. However, the painting was not raffled and was instead gifted to renowned art collector Joseph Harrison, Jr. around 1855.
In 1852, Rothermel exhibited Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses in Baltimore, MD, Washington D.C., and Richmond, VA. Tradition holds that Rothermel’s picture was placed in the Capitol rotunda, but extant records are vague, and it cannot be documented. That year German American painter Emanuel Leutze exhibited Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) in Washington, D.C., and George P.A. Healy exhibited Webster Replying to Hayne in the Senate (1851). Sen. James Cooper of Pennsylvania sponsored a resolution in April directing the Committee of the Library to investigate the expediency of employing Leutze and Healy to create paintings which would adorn the U.S. Capitol. In June, the Senate amended the resolution to examine the possibility of engaging Rothermel to paint two subjects “to be drawn from American revolutionary history.” The Senate amendment resulted, in part, from a petition circulated by the officers of the Philadelphia Art Union requesting that Rothermel be employed to fill “one of the panels of the rotunda of the Capitol.” Nothing came of these resolutions, although in 1861 Emanuel Leutze received a commission for Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1860) in the Capitol extension. Even though Rothermel exhibited Christian Martyrs (ca. 1864) in the Capitol during the 1860s, he failed to obtain a government commission.
As work on the Capitol progressed, painters continued to be evaluated – and reevaluated – for possible commissions. In February 1854, the influential Gouverneur Kemble of Cold Spring, NY, who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1837 to 1841, wrote to Montgomery Meigs, Architect of the Capitol, “I saw the other day in Philadelphia a picture by Rothermel, representing Patrick Henry delivering his celebrated speech before the Burgesses of Virginia, which for truth and expression, and good color, is equal to any thing that the other [Leutze] has done, and the drawing is better than most of Leutze’s pictures …. ” Obviously unimpressed, Meigs replied, “Rothermel’s Patrick Henry seemed to me a sketch, as though he had not the industry or skill to paint a finished picture.”
By the 1850s the smoothly finished pictures of artists working in Dusseldorf, Germany – among them Emanuel Leutze – had become popular in America, and Meigs was not the only individual critical of Rothermel’s more painterly style. Henry T. Tuckerman in his widely read Book of the Artists, published in 1867, acknowledged Rothermel’s talent, but also opined that the artist had produced “a large number of works with a rapidity incompatible with grand permanent results.” However, Rothermel’s Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses and its engraving received critical acclaim and were important in further establishing Rothermel’s reputation.