He’s one of the least-known artists with one of the most recognizable paintings, and for the first time, the largest collection of Archibald Willard’s artistic work will be on display in one place.
No, it’s not in the Cleveland Museum of Art, or even the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin: it’s in Wellington.
The Spirit of ’76 Museum, located in downtown Wellington, has the honor of hosting 22 original Willard paintings within its walls until the end of October when the museum closes for the season. The exhibit, “Yours Truly, A.M. Willard,” is all thanks to Dan Zivko, an art enthusiast out of Cleveland who took a particular interest in Willard’s various works. After a visit to the Spirit of ’76 Museum last spring, Zivko agreed to loan his paintings as a way to honor the 100th anniversary of Willard’s death, as well as to celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary, a place largely dedicated to one of Wellington’s most famous residents.
Willard arrived in Wellington at the age of 19, working as a painter in a local carriage factory, but got his start as an artist painting “Pluck I,” a laughable cartoon featuring the young sons of a prominent Wellington business owner and a rambunctious dog. The painting was so well received that Willard painted a companion piece, “Pluck II,” and the set eventually sold 10,000 copies.
But while Willard started with two boys and a dog, his greatest masterpiece, and the namesake of Wellington’s museum, was “The Spirit of ’76.” What started out as a simple sketch of three Wellingtonians goofing around in the town square turned into one of the nation’s most well-known and symbolic images of the patriotic spirit. Completed in 1876, “The Spirit of ‘76” went on to become Willard’s “bread and butter,” with a known 24 original paintings of the same three figures having been discovered to this day.
The collection, which includes two original “Spirit” paintings, boasts an impressive representation of Willard’s interests. From landscapes and portraits to still life, painted in a variety of mediums, there is something unique and definably “Willard” in every piece; a point of pride for a small-town museum with deep roots.
The figures who originally posed for Willard as he painted “The Spirit of ‘76” were Wellington area residents, and the Spirit of ’76 Museum has had the original drum used by the portrait’s central figure within its collection for years. What they hadn’t had was the fife, carried by Hugh Mosher. Until “Yours Truly, A.M. Willard” opened, that is.
On loan by Mosher’s great-great-granddaughter, Rebecca (Durham) Duelley, for the duration of the exhibit, the fife is a great addition that ties the history and pride of one town together in a three-floor, diamond in the rough building. Duelley described the fife as a “family treasure,” sharing legends of the metal band around the center of the fife, said to be a repair Mosher made after his son Walter cracked the instrument as a child. The metal band can clearly be seen in the “Spirit” paintings on display.
It’s not often that so much little-known history gathers in one little-known location. But whether by fate, universal intervention or just sheer luck, the Spirit of ’76 Museum has the opportunity to share with the masses the story of one unassuming artist who helped shape the American spirit with a stroke of his brush. It’s a piece of history not to be missed.
The Spirit of ’76 Museum is located at 201 N. Main St. in Wellington, and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 – 3:30 p.m. To schedule a tour, visitors can contact the museum office at (440) 647-4367 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
**Originally published in The Rural Urban Record**