Sunday, 23 August 2015


“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.” - Horace Greeley

Archibald MacNeal Willard (August 22, 1836 – October 11, 1918) was an American painter who was born and raised in Bedford, Ohio. Willard joined the 86th Ohio Infantry in 1863 and fought in the American Civil War. During this time, he painted several scenes from the war and forged a friendship with photographer James F. Ryder. Willard painted “The Spirit of ‘76” in Wellington, Ohio after he saw a parade pass through the town square. Willard also painted three murals in the main hall of the Fayette County courthouse in Washington Court House, Ohio: “The Spirit of Electricity”, “The Spirit of Telegraphy”, and “The Spirit of the Mail”.

Willard was commissioned by the firm Cooks Brothers to do painting and fresco work for the interior walls of the Fayette County courthouse (which opened on May 1, 1885). Willard did not sign his work and the artist’s identity remained a mystery for nearly 75 years, until confirmation was made in August 1956. The artist had put his name in the delivery address of the letter in the mural “The Spirit of the Mail”. I’ve tried to find images of these murals with Google, but have been unsuccessful.

Willard’s most famous work is “The Spirit of ‘76” (previously known as Yankee Doodle), which was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition. The original is displayed in Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts, with several later variations painted by Willard exhibited around the country (including in the United States Department of State). Of note, he used his father as the model for the middle character of the painting. The painting originated from a sketch done by Willard, which included 3 men dancing and singing. Although art critics were harshly critical of the painting, it was extremely popular with most Americans who saw it. Ryder produced many reproductive images to sell to the public, and Willard painted a number of different versions of the painting during the remainder of his life. The artist died in 1918.

The painting shown above is the “Village of Wellington” (1857) signed and dated by the artist and it is displayed in the Herrick Memorial Library. Nineteen-year-old Archibald Willard moved to Wellington with his family in 1855. In two years when he produced this work, he was capable of painting such works, of considerable sophistication but also imbued with a degree of naïve charm.

There are several other Willard paintings, for example “The Blue Girl”, “Pluck”, “Self Portrait” but these are not as well-known. Another charming work of his that I have come across is a depiction of “Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles”, for the lecture “Marvels of the Natural World,” given in Cleveland in 1872.

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