PHILADELPHIA — Philip Mead was online late one night in May, looking for possible artifacts from the American Revolution, when a painting up for auction caught his eye and got his heart racing.
The chief historian at the American Revolution Museum had spied an unsigned watercolor from 1782. It was a panorama of an army encampment, and to his expert eye seemed to feature the only known wartime depiction of the tent George Washington used as his command center during the Revolutionary War.
The tent is the marquee exhibit at the museum, which opened in April. And, thanks to Mead’s sharp eye, the museum now owns the painting that will anchor an exhibition next year.
Mead said the discovery seemed almost “too good to be true.”
“I’ve had this level of excitement only a handful of times in my 30 years of looking for this stuff,” Mead said.
When Mead saw the painting, he immediately emailed the image to Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming.
“My heart leapt into my throat when I realized what this painting was,” Stephenson said.
They had to quickly line up donors to bid on the piece, which was going up for auction just days after they spotted it. They were concerned maybe they weren’t the only people to spot the rare work, and they weren’t 100 percent sure the painting was exactly what they had hoped.
“Our motto is you must kiss every frog in case it is a prince,” Stephenson said.
In this case, it was a prince.
With only one other bidder, they landed the painting easily, for $12,000. Once in hand, the museum’s curatorial team was able to conclude the painting shows the Continental Army’s fall encampment at Verplanck’s Point, New York, and was created by Pierre L’Enfant, the French-born engineer best known for laying out the nation’s capital.
The painting depicts hundreds of military tents arrayed across a rolling Hudson Valley landscape. Perched on a hilltop rising about the scene on the painting’s left side is Washington’s field headquarters, including the telltale tent.