Art Sunday: Archibald Willard – The Spirit of 76

Willard’s most famous work is The Spirit of ’76 (previously known as Yankee Doodle), which was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1876. Common myths claim that people were so inspired by it that Willard was invited to show his painting and that even then president Grant gave his praise. Unfortunately, it did not have such an initial popularity. It was placed in the Art Annex to make room for a large number of applications and it was scarcely advertised. It was not hailed by critics either, with one calling the work “oppressive”. The success of the painting was largely due to Ryder’s marketing of the chromolithographs, sold first at five dollars a piece and for less as the exhibition progressed. After the exhibition, the painting garnered enough popularity to tour across the country to large crowds.

The original is displayed in Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts. Several later variations painted by Willard have been exhibited around the country (including in the United States Department of State).

Willard developed the painting from a sketch, which included three men dancing and singing. He used his father, Samuel Willard, as the model for the middle character of the painting. Hugh Mosher was the model for the fifer. The boy was Henry Devereaux. Including his father in the painting was something that set the painting apart from his usual, humorous style, since Willard was sentimental of his father’s work as a minister and his grandfather’s role in the Revolutionary War.