Alonzo Chappel and the Romantic Visual Culture of Antebellum America

This spring, Finding the Maryland 400 has partnered with students at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. These students, in Professor Adam Goodheart’s class studying the Maryland 400 and the state during the Revolution, researched and wrote biographies of Maryland 400 soldiers, as well as short essays about different topics about the American Revolution (Elizabeth Cassibry, our intern this summer, was part of this class).

Over the next few months, we will be publishing their biographies and blog posts. Today, we start with Patrick Jackson, who wrote about the magnificent painting of the Battle of Brooklyn that is this website’s header image. Today, it is owned by the Brooklyn Historical Society, who has very generously allowed us to use it. Look for more posts by Washington College students soon!

The visual legacy of Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887) is enormous and unfortunately nebulous. While many of Chappel’s paintings are known and survive in some form, a number of pieces exist only in the form of engravings and lithographs made by other artists in his circle. Chappel’s work, although widely circulated, was destined to be widely forgotten because many of his original oil paintings were lost or relegated to private collections.  [1]

This is a truly miserable fate for such a fine artist. The works which do survive in their original form, however, tell a vibrant tale not only of the artist who made them, but of the rich visual culture in which Chappel participated. The remembrance of the Revolutionary struggle by later generations, such as those in Chappel’s time around the mid-1800s, had a strong visual culture which celebrated the Romantic character of the soldiers who fought in the war.

Alonzo Chappel, The Battle of Long Island, 1858, oil on canvas, 1858. Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Battle of Long Island, Chappel’s 1858 work, draws on the fabled story of the Maryland 400 and their stand at the Vechte-Cortelyou House—today known as the Old Stone House—and their attempted escape through the Gowanus Creek.[2] The building in the painting is not made of stone, as the original house was partially constructed, and so is probably the mill attached to the house, which relied on the mill pond connected to the creek. This structure would have been a familiar sight for Chappel,  a New York native who lived on Long Island at the time of his painting.[3]

The painting itself is chaotic. As famed historian David McCullough says, this gives it “a sense of what battles really were like.”[4] A close look at the background of the painting reveals the British lines advancing on the Marylanders’ precarious position, signaling that this is the pivotal moment in the story. It is perhaps unusual that the famous stand of the Maryland troops is only pictured in the background, while their retreat is in the foreground—the focus of the painting. This may be to emphasize the sacrifice of the Maryland regiment, as their stand was indispensable to the retreat of the American troops which eventually helped the Continental Army survive the loss at the Battle of Brooklyn. By placing the Maryland troops in a prominent background role, the painting imbues the Maryland troops with a sense of humility—that their actions were not for mere glory or reward, but for the good of the cause and their fellow soldiers—a similar sense of humbleness which would come to characterize the popular imagination of Washington during and after the Revolution.

Chappel’s painting not only helps to visualize the stand of the Maryland 400 and solidify their status as mythic heroes, but reflects the romanticized view of the Revolution which dominated public consciousness during the mid-1800s. It was earlier in the same decade that the most famous painting concerning the Revolution, and perhaps in all American history, was produced: Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware.[5]

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The same factors are at play in both Leutze’s and Chappel’s works, as both portray, in a pseudo-historical fashion, events which became part of the standard popular memory of the Revolution. Neither painting attempts to portray a true-to-life history, however. Leutze’s painting reflected the failed revolutions of 1848 in the German states—as David Hackett Fischer puts it, “the painting came to center more on struggle than triumph.”[6] In the same spirit, Chappel’s painting is not one which glorifies what the Americans won after their struggle, but remembers their struggle in the face of imminent failure—as Thomas Paine so famously wrote, the “times that try men’s souls.”

The first full histories of the Revolution were being written in the 1840s and 1850s, and with tensions between the Northern and Southern states rising, a unifying memory such as the Revolution seemed to be the perfect solution. While Northern historians and artists had the inclination to include all regions in their histories, Southern scholars were wary of the assumption that all the colonies had been a cohesive “body politic before the Revolution.” The Northern tendency to celebrate the Revolution as an inherently unifying experience ran counter to the Southern angst to associate with the Northern states that they perceived to be attacking their way of life. This context sheds yet another light on Chappel’s painting. Maryland, at the time of the painting, was a slave state and was very much embroiled in the same angst as other Southern states in the face of growing abolitionist fervor. Chappel’s choice to paint a scene so central to the identity of a state which allowed slavery—but which occurred in the North—drew on the same Northern tendencies to emphasize unity. It invoked the bravery of the soldiers which earned Maryland the “Old Line State” moniker to recall the unity felt during the Revolution rather than the contemporary feelings of chaos.[7]

The story of the Maryland 400 resonates with those who hear it not only because of its important place in the history of the Revolution, but because of the resonance of their sacrifice. In the face of the advancing British Army, who greatly outnumbered the Marylanders, the soldiers stood their ground, making possible the American retreat and the continuation of the war. Just as Leutze’s painting came to symbolize leadership in the face of struggle, Chappel’s painting instills in the viewer the sense that the sacrifice of the Marylanders was symbolic of that same courage which drove the Americans to continue their fight for liberty in the face of overwhelming odds.

-Patrick Jackson

[1] David Meschutt and Barbara J. Mitnick, The Portraits and History Paintings of Alonzo Chappel (Chadds Ford, PA: Brandywine River Museum Publication, 1992), 10, 12.
[2] Patrick K. O’Donnell, Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution (New York: Grove, 2016), 64.
[3] Meschutt and Mitnick, 10.
[4]The Art of War: An Illustrated ‘1776’.” NPR, October 4, 2007.
[5] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1.
[6] Fischer, 3.
[7] John Hope Franklin, “The North, the South, and the American Revolution,” The Journal of American History 62, no. 1 (1975), 7-8.

This entry was posted in Maryland 400, Washington College. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Alonzo Chappel and the Romantic Visual Culture of Antebellum America

  1. Richard Azzaro says:

    Excellent work.

    To penetrate these noble actions and see the the higher meaning is an excellent service to Maryland and America.

    Thank you,

    Richard A Azzaro
    Former member of the Honor Guard Tomb of the Unknown Sokdier


Comments are closed.