Why does the artist behind “America’s best known painting” lie in relative obscurity?
Willard Gordon, 87, is Archibald Willard’s grandnephew and has spent decades fighting that perception. He stopped in the village April 6 to gather information for additions to his book, “The Spirit of ‘76: An American Portrait.”
“My book chronicles Willard’s paintings,” he said. “Basically, I’m trying to promote him to be recognized as a significant American artist. It’s a matter of getting more professionals aware of him and they can take it from there. Willard wasn’t a great artist, but he was a very significant one. We have American’s best known painting in ‘The Spirit of ‘76’ but not many people know a thing about the artist. Wellington is where he grew up. It’s a significant town and people should know that.”
It was Gordon’s first time visiting Wellington since his book was first published in 1976.
Nicole Hayes, who runs a historical blog about the village at www.19thcenturywellington.wordpress.com, extended the invitation.
Part of the motivation for the invitation was the arrival in the village last summer of three large murals painted by Willard. They’re estimated to be from the 1870s and each depict a degree of freemasonry: entered apprentice, fellowcraft, and master mason.
Hayes accompanied Gordon at the Herrick Memorial Library and Spirit of ‘76 Museum as he viewed the murals and other Willard paintings.
“It was just very important to me to get him back here,” she said. “The murals are beautiful and so is Wellington’s history. It’s important for Mr. Gordon to have a first-hand perspective of new discoveries like this.”
Hayes will help present the murals publicly at 2 p.m. on Mother’s Day at Wellington village hall.
Gordon, who now lives in Fallbrook, Calif., arrived in Wellington with Dan Zivko, a Cleveland based art collector and fellow Archibald Willard enthusiast.
“I bought up a Willard collection at Cleveland’s Wolfs Gallery,” said Zivko. “I think a neighbor of Willard’s had it. He passed away and the collection became available in the 80s. I got a copy of Mr. Gordon’s book and then he flew out many years ago to look at my collection.”
Zivko and Gordon said approximately 20 versions of “The Spirit of ‘76” exist, but there’s never been consensus agreement on which is the original. One in the town hall of Marblehead, Mass., is viewed by many experts as the likely original but Gordon is skeptical.
Gordon’s great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Samuel Willard, provided the likeness for the drummer in the middle of the famous painting.
“The one in Marblehead is too big and it’s too well-done to be the original,” he said. “In 1876 Willard was a very primitive painter, and this painting was supposedly painted in ‘76. It matches up with the quality of his work later on in the 1890s. I’m confident it’s not the original.”
Spirit of ‘76 Museum director Scott Markel presented Gordon with a Freemason’s 2017 Ohio grand master pin after viewing the murals. Gordon donated one of his Willard paintings to the museum, an alternate version of “Pluck I.”
“This man is a big piece of Wellington’s historical puzzle,” said Markel. “It was my honor and privilege to shake his hand and get to show him what we have going on here.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.