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Despite being outclassed, on September 10, 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led his ships, most commanded by untested men in their twenties, into battle against the fleet of seasoned British commander Robert Barclay. Battered beyond repair, Perry’s flagship the Laurence lost eighty percent of its crew. After abandoning ship, Perry rowed nearly a mile through heavy gunfire to board the Niagara, his second-largest ship. Barclay expected an American retreat. Instead, aided by favorable wind, Perry unexpectedly plunged the Niagara into the British line and let rip a broadside volley in both directions, inflicting decisive damage on Barclay’s largest ships, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte. Improbably, two hours after the engagement began, Barclay surrendered. Writing to Major General William Harrison, Perry famously described the battle with succinct understatement: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours: Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner, & one Sloop.” In a largely forgettable war, blighted with many embarrassing defeats, the Battle of Lake Erie boosted America’s resolve and almost immediately became a celebrated part of American visual culture.
Commemorating the bicentenary of this historic naval battle, the Toledo Museum of Art (located notably close to the original battle sight) is showing Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie, an exhibition featuring a broad array of approximately forty works of art and artifacts representative of the battle’s interpretation in American and British popular culture.
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts loaned marine artist Thomas Birch’s heroically scaled Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (1814). The painting, the largest he ever made, shows the disabled American flagship Laurence in the foreground as both fleets, depicted in full, exchange fire. In the distant background, the Niagara exchanges fire with the Queen Charlotte. Birch depicted the naval battles of the War of 1812 movingly yet with sobriety, generally careful to maintain topographic and historical accuracy. Work began on the painting within weeks of the battle; the painting was displayed in the Pennsylvania Academy in 1814 before the war had ended. As the century progressed, subsequent depictions of the Battle of Lake Erie by other artists departed from the Birch’s historical accuracy and tended to be characterized by more contrived and romanticized depictions of the battle.
Five years after the battle, the Rhode Island legislature commissioned the Scottish-born portraitist Gilbert Stuart to paint a portrait of Commodore Perry, who emerged from the war as a nationally celebrated naval hero. Gilbert Stuart, always exasperatingly slow at fulfilling commissions, only completed the face. His daughter Jane had to complete the rest after Stewart’s death. Known for his unflattering accuracy, he even angered Sir. Joshua Reynolds, the first president of England’s Royal Academy, when in a portrait he depicted Reynolds enjoying a pinch of snuff. Stuart produced over a thousand portraits of the presidents and public officials of America’s Federal period. His depiction of Perry, now in the TMA’s permanent collection, shows him dressed in the officers’ uniform he would have worn in 1813.
After the war, even British artisans and artists were eager to profit from depictions and memorabilia commemorating the Battle of Lake Erie, satisfying a market that existed, surprisingly, on both sides of the Atlantic. Perry’s admirable gentlemanly conduct during the war contributed to his positive reception in England. Famously, he treated captured enemy soldiers kindly. Louis Chevalier’s Burial of the Officers Slain at the Battle of Lake Erie (1860) even shows Perry’s men joined by the British as they buried their dead officers in alternating graves on the shores of Lake Erie.
Revealing the extent and the speed of which popular culture celebrated the Battle of Lake Erie, John Lewis Krimmel’s Village Tavern (1814) pays subtle tribute to the battle. Easy to miss, on the wall in the background of the scene, shadows hide several decorative prints portraying the Battle of Lake Erie.
Alongside the artwork, the show also displays a wide assortment of historical documents and artifacts related to the Battle of Lake Erie and the War of 1812. Viewers can see the navigational octant Barclay supposedly had given Perry after the battle in an old-world gesture of gentlemanly chivalry. Notably, the TMA even has one of the six original signed copies of the Treaty of Ghent which formally ended the War of 1812 (tragically, hostilities in America continued for several months due to the slow rate of news travel).
Perry’s Victory, a small but rewarding show, displays a surprisingly varied collection that will interest art enthusiasts and history buffs alike. Free and open to the public, the show runs until November 10, 2013.