Wednesday, August 29, 2012

That Incendiary Ary Portrait

A month ago, Gossips published the account of a brawl between Whigs and Democratics that took place in 1840 on the steamship South America. The brawl was incited by a portrait of Martin Van Buren, painted by Henry Ary, which hung in the steamer's main saloon. The portrait, after being cut and kicked and nearly burned in the melee and later used for some years as a fire board in someone's front parlor in Brooklyn, ended up being given to the Long Island Historical Society, now the Brooklyn Historical Society.

At the time I published the account, I made an inquiry about the portrait, and today I received a reply from Elizabeth Call, Special Collections Librarian at the Brooklyn Historical Society. She told me they did have a portrait of Martin Van Buren, but it had been deaccessioned in 1987, and she could not confirm that it had been painted by Henry Ary. She provided the information that the receipt of "a portrait in oil of President Martin Van Buren, painted while he was Attorney General of the State, between the years 1815 and 1819, and presented by the Hon. John G. Schumaker, of this city" is recorded in the society's annual report for 1867. Schumaker, of course, is the person who wrote the account, in which he indicates that it was he who rescued the portrait from its ignominious function in the parlor and gave it to the Long Island Historical Society. Elizabeth Call also sent a copy of a photograph of the portrait from the society's files. 


  1. Great sleuthing Gossips!It has to be it,since Schumaker rescued it again ,this time from being a firescreen,and donated it to the L.I. Historical Society,which became the Brooklyn Historical Society.Deaccessioned,means that they sold it in 1987?If they did,wouldn't they have a record who bought it?

    1. They probably do, but I had asked for confirmation that the portrait had indeed been given to the Long Island Historical Society and for an image of the portrait, and that's what I got. I suspect the librarians don't have a lot of time to research beyond what people ask for when responding to such inquiries.

      There is no doubt in my mind that this is the portrait that incited the brawl. There is, however, doubt about its being the work of Henry Ary. In the account reprinted in the local newspaper, Schumaker said the painting was done when Martin Van Buren was elected President in 1836. That fits with what we know of Ary's career. The historical society's records, however, indicate it was painted when Van Buren was attorney general for the State of New York--1815 to 1819. If that's true, Ary couldn't have painted it, since he was born in 1807 and would have been somewhere between 8 and 12 during that time period. However, it could be the case that the portrait DEPICTS Van Buren when he was attorney general, but that it wasn't painted from life. Ary may have modeled his portrait after another portrait, as he did with the portrait of George Washington that hangs in City Hall.

  2. That would make sense,that Ayers would copy another earlier portrait,which was very common.The portrait seems to be of Van Buren much younger ,than when he was President,54-58 years old.He would have been 33-37 yrs old when he was N.Y.S. Attorney General.
    Van Buren held so many government positions ,some for very short periods of time(like in 1828, being Governor of NY for only 1 yr),it must have been hard to get the guy to sit still for a portrait.His first position was in 1808 when named Surrogate of Columbia County, New York.He was only 26 yrs old.