By John M. Hunt, Jr., PhD
The one Mayflower passenger whose physical likeness has come down to us is Edward Winslow. We can see his face as it appeared to the London artist who painted his portrait at elbow-length, body and head slightly to the left, during his last visit to the city, in 1651. What the other passengers looked like can only be imagined. Nor were painters ready to portray them taking their monumental strides until the nineteenth century, the great age of illustration of American history. Thereafter, paintings and prints proliferated. These and other illustrations in schoolbooks have powerfully shaped our sense of the Pilgrims as they embarked at Delftshaven, signed the Mayflower Compact, landed at Plymouth, worshiped publicly, and celebrated the First Thanksgiving.
Perhaps our most vivid vision is The Pilgrims Going to Church, by George Henry Boughton in 1867. On Boughton's canvas they proceed, solemnly and cautiously, through the snow in a bleak landscape of leafless trees. It is no use objecting that their destination, the fort-meetinghouse atop Fort (now Burial) Hill, would require them to be walking on an incline, not on the flat, as Boughton has them. In the eighteenth century, when the prototypes of modern historical painting were being produced, factual exactitude mattered little: the grand scheme was the thing. Boughton inherited this tradition; he was painting for those who would perceive, against the desolation of the scene, the spiritual qualities of the participants, their faith and perseverance, their potential for suffering, their character. The matchlock muskets on their shoulders, the coarse wool (and crisp white linen) on their bodies, the Bibles on their persons are all outward and visible signs of an inner, unshakable strength.
A similar landscape and similar signs are at work in another great painting, The Landing of the Pilgrims by Henry Sargent (1770-1845), our subject here.
The massive canvas of Landing, measuring 13 feet high, 16 feet wide, is Sargent's second execution of the theme, a very close copy of his first. His original perished long ago. It had the misfortune to be rolled for storage on an unseasoned pine pole, and then to suffer rot and degeneration. The extant painting came to Pilgrim Hall, headquarters of the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth, on the loan of its maker, for the opening of the Greek Revival edifice in 1824, the 204th anniversary of New England. Ten years later Sargent officially donated the work to the Society.
Landing promptly earned the praises of John Trumbull (1756-1843), father of American historical painting.1 Trumbull thought it a "fine picture," possessing "great merit." When, in a letter to James Thacher, trustee of the Pilgrim Society, he wrote, generally, that "the whole world is deeply indebted to those venerable men for the great Example of Fortitude and Perseverance which they gave," he was speaking also as an artist. He had in his mind's eye precisely what an artist would try to express on his canvas, the moral content of the scene, the Pilgrims as example, standing steadfast against the cold.
Historical painting, as a special genre, raises certain expectations. We expect a complex scene, symmetrically composed. The classical quality of appropriateness is absolutely fundamental. The figures must be appropriate in face and feature, in pose and gesture, arranged in groups, balanced to the right and the left, in a setting appropriate to the incident, with a backdrop, often a sky with light and darkness, which unifies the composition and gives it its energy. As it happened, Sargent's teacher, Benjamin West (1738-1820) set the standard for attire. He fairly shocked the world of art by putting the figures in his Death of General Wolfe at Quebec (1771), for the first time in modern historical painting, in contemporary (not ancient or ideal) dress. But the action of the figures is not open to compromise: it must be heroic. Everything in fact, from the master plan of the work to the small details, should convey a sense of majesty, a sense of the sublimity of the occasion.
Let us see how Sargent's Landing measures up.
The focal figure in the painting is Samoset, sagamore of the Abnaki tribe in Maine, on hand to welcome the Pilgrims as they disembark at Plymouth on 11/21 December 1620. No primary source indicates so extensive a landing, involving men, women, and children, on that particular date. Nor did Samoset first appear until 16/26 March 1620/21, when he paid a totally unexpected visit, walking "boldly" into the settlement. His looks on that day, as described in Mourt's Relation (a work in the nature of journal extracts, seemingly by Edward Winslow, with parts by William Bradford, published in 1622), bear at least some resemblance to Sargent's creation —"stark naked, only a leath about his waist, with a long fringe about a span long... tall, straight... the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all." The historical Samoset provided the Pilgrims with vital information about the locale and its tribes, and put them in contact, to their profit, with the Patuxet brave Squanto and the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit. Sargent's Samoset is here initiating the relationship. He has his mouth visibly open, and is speaking — in English, no doubt, which he knew.
The Pilgrims have their mouths closed. They are, for the most part, reacting to his presence. Elizabeth Hopkins, wife of Stephen, recoils, her face marked with fear, her hand raised in horror. The reaction of Katherine Carver, wife of Governor John, is also one of apprehension, though her attitude is more genteel; her hand gesture is more dignified, as she seemingly reaches for the support of her husband's arm, and she derives a certain serenity, evident in her face, by accommodating her position to his. The children are meek and timorous; one of them is holding her hands tensely together, a sure sign of anxiety. The dog at their side will have come on the Mayflower. The animal is associated with the Carver family by virtue of its placement in the picture, but in fact two dogs, "a great mastiff bitch" and "a little spaniel," like the spaniel here, are attributed to passenger John Goodman (d. 1621) in Mourt's Relation.
The Governor himself, the other commanding presence in the painting, is calm, composed, and self-assured. There is determination in the fixity of his feet, benevolence in the position of his left hand, outstretched, returning the greeting, and willingness to fight in the placement of his right hand, clutching the hilt of his sword. Carver is assuming what is technically known as the adlocutio pose, familiar from William Penn, also a benevolent proprietor, also depicted with Indians, in Benjamin West's William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771). George Washington in Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" Washington (1796) is another example.
Standing behind Carver, slightly to his left, is William Bradford. The essential likeness of the two figures in face and form, including helmet, has meaning: four months later, Carver would die (of an apparent heatstroke) and Bradford would succeed to the office of Governor.
Myles Standish, wearing a plumed hat, gives the impression of a Spaniard, while Carver and Bradford have the look of Englishmen, and Isaac Allerton, at the extreme left of the painting, resembles a Turk, and one or two persons at the extreme right, Samuel Fuller for instance, resemble Italians. This observation, if valid, says something about Sargent's technique: that not all the models he used for his faces came from English people in English paintings. It would be a find of scholarly proportions if someone could track down any or all of these sources.2
A soldier by profession, soon to be officially elected captain of the Militia, Standish has a buckler on his left arm and a halberd (battle-ax) in his left hand.3 The halberd in his left hand and the pike in the left hand of John Alden, who is directly behind Bradford, serve to frame the central group of figures. Of the figures in that group, only Standish is not looking at Samoset. His eyes are trained elsewhere, searching, it would seem, for some threat worthy of a soldier's response; and his gaze is quite intense.
Should there be danger John Howland, to the right of Standish, in the right group, rear, would be ready for it. His youthful face is all alertness, and he has his matchlock in his hands, raised, almost positioned. His "piece," as the Pilgrims called their matchlocks, is balanced artistically by that of William White, hanging across his back, in the left group, front. Another halberd and pike, near that held by Alden, and three other matchlock barrels, near the headbasket to the right, rear, attest further to the Pilgrims' military capability. The presence of these weapons is softened, however, by the basket, containing as it does the very stuff of domesticity.
In the third group, to the left, the figures are absorbed in themselves. They pay Samoset no heed, at least not directly. William White's attention is effectively drawn to Isaac Allerton and his wife Mary, who have just disembarked from the shallop, of which we can see only the mast. But why is Allerton thus interacting with White? Is the child in White's arms the issue? Or is it the Indian, as yet beyond Allerton's line of vision? A nineteenth-century observer, writing in the Old Colony Memorial, was perhaps opting for the latter when he referred to "the out features of the praying Allerton" - praying, one would imagine, to avert the possible hazard posed by the Indian. Allerton's arms have almost the height required for striking such an attitude; there is only a question about the position of his eyes, whether they are raised upward to the heavens, in virtual prayer, or are simply focused upon White. Mrs. Allerton, for her part, could be described as prayerful, or hopeful, and her face, unmistakably that of Madonna, could be interpreted as confirming the intent of her hands.
White's figure, qua figure, is a superb study, done from the rear for the sake of variety. His movement in the left foot matches that of Edward Winslow on the opposite side of the painting, in the right group, and thus forms a frame.4 Nor do the armor and arms of White in any way contradict history. Mourt's Relation offers a virtual commentary on this: "sixteen men were set out with every man his musket, sword, and corselet." Later in the same work: "we were so laden with armor that we could carry no more [corn]." A man so fully equipped as White is, a genuine militiaman, carrying a tender infant in his arms, constitutes a paradox, much as do the diagonal weapons and the basket mentioned above.
William Brewster, wrapped in a black cloak, is attentive to White, to whom he is gesturing. The gesturing hand seems to be conventionally "beneficent," a variant of Carver's "benevolent" hand, while the other appears to be holding the handle of a sword from which, in a powerful piece of symbolism, most of the blade has been torn. Brewster's figure is further interesting, with a brilliantly conceived face, exhibiting sadness and suffering, concern and compassion for others. The oldest man in the company, he at first looks to be stooped, but is actually in motion. His right foot is positioned on the upper level of rock, in the act of ascending to it, while his left foot (his left leg is hidden by the covering hanging from the White child) remains on the lower level, prepared to push off. He is marked as different from the other men by the length and color of his beard. It renders him patriarchal, as indeed he was.
That the mast of the shallop should rise directly behind Brewster, slanting to the right, is a happy circumstance. In West's Death of General Wolfe at Quebec the furrowed flag is slanted to the right over the fallen body of Wolfe, recalling the similarly slanted cross over the recumbent body of Christ in Renaissance art. Also, Trumbull's Death of General Montgomery at Quebec (1786) has its dying hero so situated vis-a-vis the flag. Brewster, of course, is neither lying nor dying; but the mast of the shallop, with its crossbar, can readily be taken as a symbol of the cross. As such, it quite properly overtops the Pilgrims' Ruling Elder, their teacher in the ways of Christ.
The flag at the top of the mast, in a realistic touch, signifies a north-easterly wind, the most brutal type on the Atlantic coast, bringer of storms (note the storm cloud) and generally heavy weather. It is not simply realism, however, that at this point in time the mast of the shallop should be represented as broken. Such was in fact the case. According to Mourt's Relation, only days earlier, when a party soon to land in Plymouth was exploring Cape Cod Bay, they came upon foul weather: "as we grew near, the gail being still and we bearing great sail to get in, split our mast in three pieces, and were like to have cast away our shallop." The mast of the shallop, because it partakes of both the ideal (or symbolic) and the real, is thus a perfect example of what we mean when we say that an historical painting is intermediate between these two aspects. The mast has an artistic purpose here as well. It acts as a frame on the left of the picture, balancing the leafless boughs on the right. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the top of the mast (the flag) and the top of the boughs are equal in height.
Not only does the positioning of the Allertons, with heads lower, preclude equal-headedness (isocephaly), a fault in painting: it also allows for a view of Plymouth Harbor and the Mayflower herself, anchored in the distance. We see the ship here by pictorial license, since from Mourt's Relation we learn that she was moored in Provincetown Harbor until 15/25 December, arriving in Plymouth on 16/26 December, five days after our painting's mise en scène. In any event the nearness of the Mayflower and the mast of the shallop is artistically fitting, emphasizing their connectedness; and it is an added bonus that the cable hanging to the left of the mast itself should frame the view of the ship. By so introducing water and the ship, Sargent was using what by his time had become a motif in historical landscapes. Consider the glimpse afforded of early shipping on the Delaware in West's Penn's Treaty, the ships in the offing on the St. Lawrence in the same artist's Death of General Wolfe, the stretch of Boston Bay and the British ship Somerset floating upon it in Trumbull's Battle of Bunker's Hill. Relevant though these ships are, none of them can compete with the Mayflower here for supreme and total relevance to scene.
While we are considering Trumbull, the mixture of light and dark in that artist's skies5 has become almost legendary (Death of General Montgomery at Quebec, Capture of the Hessians at Trenton). Sargent's sky in Landing has Trumbullian affinities. It has the requisite agitation. An enormous storm cloud hangs overhead, dark and melancholy, portending misery and peril. Yet a considerable ray of light, quite dazzling in the colors of the original, imparts hope. Significantly, the light shines brightest over the heads of the Governor and the Governor-to-be, forming a kind of nimbus above the central group. Two sets of seabirds punctuate the sky, three of the creatures to the left of the shallop, four or five against the murkiness of the great cloud. Though the birds are in their habitat, as expected, it is tempting to suppose that they followed the Pilgrims, as gulls will typically follow a ship, taking the people's tid-bits of food, from the first mooring at Provincetown Harbor, six weeks earlier, to the final destination at Plymouth.
Two leafless boughs on the right, sharp to the eye (the snow on their tops is bright to the point of iridescence), contrast with the dull crags, similarly two in number, looming directly behind them. These jagged crags are complemented by the jagged fragments of ice, not to mention the congealed snow, at the feet of the Pilgrims. A very strong visual image emerges from the rift in the ice, separating the Pilgrim leaders of the central group from their famous welcomer.
In Landing, then, Sargent depicts a significant event. In so doing he taps various conventions of modern historical painting. His protagonists are not accidentally but artfully arranged. There is variety in the men, women, and children, differently garbed, the colors of their clothing producing rich contrasts in the original. Our eyes are at first attracted to the Governor in his striking red vest, the tallest in the company. The figure of the Indian, bent forward, contrasts with that of the Governor, and indeed with those of the others, while he for his part holds the interest of all but a few. This moment of cultural contact, antedated by Sargent's invention, was certainly a felicitous stroke; relations between the early Plymouth colonists and their Indian neighbors were harmonious, and Samoset was a boon and a blessing to them. The painting underscores the Pilgrims' noble qualities by setting them in a petrifying environment. We are encouraged by Sargent's artistry to see beyond the landing, a pivotal step, to the great events leading up to it and the great consequences flowing from it, to contemplate, in effect, the whole of the Pilgrims' achievement. As Trumbull offered keys to the identification of persons in his various historical paintings, so did Sargent here. He intended all of his figures, not simply the principal ones, to be specific Pilgrims. "And who of us, descendants of the intrepid association," James Thacher once asked, "can look at the picture without emotion?"6
The portrait Edward Winslow (London, 1651, artist unknown, on canvas) and Sargent's Landing of the Pilgrims (Boston, c. 1818-23, oil on canvas) hang in Pilgrim Hall Museum, 75 Court Street, Plymouth, MA 02360, tel. 508-746-1620. We are grateful to the Pilgrim Society at Pilgrim Hall for permission to reproduce Landing in our pages. Karin L. Goldstein, Curator of Collections, Peggy M. Baker, Curator of Manuscripts and Books, and Stephen O 'Neill, Curatorial Intern, have graciously answered questions, but are in no way responsible for any errors in the analysis here offered.
We quote from the letter of John Trumbull to James Thacher (New York, 1 May 1835) again through the kind offices of the Pilgrim Society.
This essay first appeared in The Pennsylvania Mayflower, the newsletter of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in Summer 1994.
The Landing of the Pilgrims by Henry Sargent (1770-1845)
Image Courtesy of The Pilgrim Society/Pilgrim Hall.
1. What links Trumbull and Sargent and Benjamin West (mentioned later in this essay) is that Trumbull, who had apprenticed under West, recognized talent in the budding artist and wrote a letter of recommendation for Sargent to carry with him to his former teacher. Sargent set out for London in 1794. Incidentally, Trumbull was (and knew he was) a direct descendant of the Rev. John Robinson (d. 1625), the Pilgrims' pastor in Leiden.
2. Provided they exist. The art available in Benjamin West's London studio when Sargent studied there, or in British and continental museums when Sargent visited them, probably holds the answer. West was an accommodating teacher. One can easily imagine that when he showed Sargent his Death of General Wolfe, the young artist was fascinated by the Indian crouching prominently in the foreground, and later, reactivating the memory, accorded Samoset pride of place in his own painting, Landing.
3. The halberd, an emblem of authority, suits the stature of Standish. It is interesting that the one halberd to survive from the early period of settlement was discovered in the cellar of the John Alden House in Duxbury. It is now in Pilgrim Hall.
4. Samoset's right foot is similarly in motion; his crouching posture necessarily widens his stance. Movement is a point in which Boughton's Pilgrims Going compares ill with Sargent's Pilgrims Landing. Though Boughton's figures are meant to be "marching in order," their feet, by fault of the artist, seem stiffly planted, not in actual step. Sargent's figures, who merely stand and listen to Samoset, are represented as achieving, not as having achieved, stasis. It is to Sargent's credit that, through a few kinetic feet and hands, we see the moment "happening."
5. Often, it is true, the dark may suggest the effect, recent or lingering, of gunfire.
6. Sargent's picture also takes form in an engraving, 16 x 20¾ inches, by Elijah Hobart (Boston, 1850) and in commemorative plates.