The scene drawn by Edward Savage of Liberty as the Goddess of Youth offering sustenance from her golden goblet to the American Bald Eagle as he descends from backlit clouds captures the moment in American history when the new nation is being born. Drawn in the sky above Liberty and the Bald Eagle, emerging from smoke and clouds is the new American flag with thirteen stars, a cloth liberty cap atop the flagstaff. Beneath Liberty's bare right foot are the abandoned implements of royal tyranny, the massive Key to the Bastille prison, a royal insignia and scattered nearby are pieces of a broken royal sceptre. Small stones lie on the ground near these objects. On the horizon, behind Liberty's billowing gown, daylight begins to glow over Boston Harbor. We look southward, perhaps from the height of Beacon Hill, over the spire and cupola of most likely the Old Brick Meeting House1, behind Faneuil Hall, home to the American Revolution (and a barely visible church's spire) surrounded by lightning bolts. Ships at full mast can be seen sailing in Boston's inner harbor, likely the evacuation of the departing British Navy leaving Long Wharf for the deep channel through the Boston Harbor islands and out to sea.
Liberty as the Goddess of Youth meets the eagle's gaze, her left hand holding a garland of spring flowers, possibly apple blossoms, her right arm bearing a band of flowers. A small floral headband is tucked into her flowing hair. The contrast between Liberty's natural adornments and the abandoned manmade symbols of royal oppression would not have been lost on Savage's contemporary audience viewing his earlier painting Liberty and this 1796 print based on that painting. So too would the print's title and its imagery of America's native bird of prey, the American Bald Eagle, communicate unequivocally to Savage's viewer that the new nation was entirely home grown.
The Key to the French Bastille prison shown beneath Liberty's bare foot is equally redolent as an American symbol. In 1790, this key to the French royal prison felled by French Revolutionaries was given to President George Washington in gratitude by the Marquis de Lafayette, devoted to Washington as both mentor and adopted father. The Key was first publicly displayed in New York in August of 1790 at the home of America's first President and Mrs. Washington during one of their weekly receptions, or levees. An image of the Key was also traced in 1790 and circulated in local newspapers. In the fall of 1790, the Key was displayed publicly in Philadelphia, the next seat of American government and notably the location of Savage's studio and print shop. In 1797, just prior to George Washington leaving the Presidency, this massive, one-pound iron Key was given to Washington who hung it in his home at Mount Vernon where it remains on display today. Carved into the large bits of the Key is a French fleur de lis. This design is discernible in the key as drawn in Savage's print. Thus the Key was recognizable by 1790 to viewers of Savage's painting Liberty, and by 1796 to viewers of Savage's engraved print Liberty as a totem of power and freedom now associated with the new American republic.
Much has been written about the allegorical value of the figures and elements in Savage's print Liberty. Perhaps equally compelling to both a contemporary 18th century audience and for our understanding of this print today are the actual connections between Edward Savage the artist and his first portrait subject, George Washington and his family. Edward Savage launched his career as an artist in 1789 by writing from his home in Princeton, Massachusetts to Harvard College, offering to paint and donate a portrait of George Washington. The president of Harvard College formalized the Savage proposal as an authorized commission that year, writing to President George Washington, stationed in New York to request permission on behalf of the College for Savage to visit for the purpose of making studies for a portrait painting to hang in the Harvard Philosophy Chamber. George Washington sat for Savage beginning in December, 1789. Savage made sketches of Washington as well as of Washington's family members through 1790. These included Mrs. Washington and her two grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, both adopted by Washington. From these numerous sketches Savage painted the first promised portrait of Washington, as well as subsequent paintings of Washington, Mrs. Washington, and of the children and a family portrait. A portrait of George Washington Parke Custis from this time survives. Savage left for London in 1791 to study stipple engraving and to continue work on his other Washington paintings. There Savage makes a stipple engraving of the Washington portrait and a mezzotint of Washington seated in his office. In 1794, Savage returns to Philadelphia and from 1794-1796 resumes work on a large scale painting (approx. 6' x 10') of the Washington family seated in their library. In 1796, Savage prepares the copper plate for a stipple engraving of his earlier oil painting Liberty. In 1798, Savage engraves a plate and publishes a stipple engraved print based on his painting The Washington Family, with the title in both English and French. His work focused on the Washington family members for almost ten years.
There is a remarkable likeness between Eleanor Parke Custis as represented by Savage in the Washington family portraits and the portrait of Liberty as the Goddess of Youth in Liberty. The stance, demeanor, facial features and youthful complexion, flowing hairstyle and gauzy, dotted white gown of each figure bear a strong resemblance. The figure of Liberty as the Goddess of Youth in Savage's earlier oil painting and in this print would naturally have been based on a youthful model. Savage was a portraitist and therefore would most likely have sought examples from his own sketch books of life drawing in order to create the image of Liberty for this print, rather than depending on European idealized imagery. His recent experience sketching and painting portraits of the Washington family, including the Washington's granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis would have provided this youthful model for Liberty as a lovely and poised figure radiating promise.
There are no extant identified images of Savage's early oil painting titled Liberty. The Liberty print makes note of Savage's oil painting in the lower left hand corner text. I have found no record of the oil painting in a published collection: it was cited in an 1802 exhibition catalogue entry for Savage's New York Museum and then the Colombian Gallery, in New York and Boston, respectively that Savage operated to display his art work, the curiosities he collected and art work of other artists. In 1817, the painting Liberty was purchased along with Savage's Boston estate by Ethan Allen Greenwood, the first proprietor of Boston's New England Museum, the successor to Savage's Columbian Gallery in Boston.2 The Liberty oil painting must have been one of Savage's most cherished works, as it is listed in his 1817 probate inventory3, one of only three paintings remaining in his personal collection (The Washington Family and Columbus being the two others).
Edward Savage's 18th century image of Liberty in the form of the Goddess of Youth at the birth of the nation is iconic in American art, and spawned imitations in other media both in the United States and abroad, including school girl embroideries, naive watercolors and sophisticated Chinese import reverse glass paintings.4 The 1796 Liberty print itself is rare, held by the Library of Congress, Winterthur, Yale, the Worcester Art Museum and approximately six other institutions. This newly discovered example is rarer still. 5 As one curator remarked to me, it is a once in a lifetime experience to find an example of Edward Savage's print Liberty.
- 1. Commentary varies on identification of these spires. Paul Revere's prints of Revolutionary era Boston and certain Revolutionary era Boston plans, e.g. Faden's 1777 plan, support the identification of the tall spire as belonging to the Old Brick Meeting House.
- 2. As late as 1849, the Boston Museum Catalogue included painting "187. Goddess of America by Savage", as well as Savage's other paintings owned at his death.
- 3. The probate inventory of Edward Savage's Boston estate was appraised and certified by the artists Ethan Allen Greenwood, a pupil of Savage, John R. Penniman and William M.S. Doyle. This inventory names the three Savage paintings, cited above.
- 4. At auction in 2006, a 19th century Chinese import reverse glass painting titled Liberty modeled on Savage's print Liberty brought in excess of $336,000.00.
- 5. I have found only one record of the Liberty print offered for sale publicly: the Old Print Gallery, Catalogue Vol. XXXVIII, Number 1, February 2015 where it was featured on the catalogue cover.