P A by James W. Baker

Reprinted from The Compact, 31 No. 1 [Spring 2010]: 1, 4-5, from www.massmayflower.org website
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PILGRIMS IN ART [1]
by James W. Baker
The Pilgrims are well known to us through the
innumerable books and articles on Plymouth Colony
that have been written over the past four centuries. The
various museums and re-enacted events that Plymouth
offers provide an alternative approach to the printed
dissemination of the Pilgrim Story. In addition to the
history of the Pilgrims (the actual or interpreted facts of
the past), there is a rich body of Pilgrim stories and
legends which further embroider on the basic narrative.
All of these develop and extend our personal
impressions of who the Pilgrims were and what they
did.
Yet possibly the first thing that comes to mind when
we consider the Pilgrims is what they look like. Show
people figures in tall buckled hats or small bonnets,
wearing somber clothes with prim white collars and
cuffs and lank Dutch boy cuts, and they predictably
identify them as “Pilgrims.”
They expect these Pilgrims to be accoutered with blunderbusses and spinning wheels or accompanied by
unsuspecting turkeys. Everyone can recognize a Pilgrim, even when their knowledge of Plymouth history story is a
nothing more than a confused collage of Thanksgiving, the Mayflower, “1620,” Plymouth Rock and so forth. Yet
even as we easily recall or recognize these images, we are simultaneously aware that there problems of accuracy in
these familiar representations. People are quick to say that they know that “they really wore brightly colored clothes
and weren’t sober-sided killjoys.” There are not only very strong culturally shared impressions about what
“Pilgrims” look like, but also equally strong conflicts between the stereotype and what passes for historic accuracy.
The staying power of the familiar images is impressive. No one living has ever actually seen a Pilgrim, and there
is only a single contemporary illustration of one, Edward Winslow, which was done 30 years after the famous
Landing on the Rock. Nevertheless everyone thinks they know what Pilgrims look like. How did this come about?
Visual consciousness of the past really began in the 18th century. Until then, artists who wanted to represent the
past seldom made it look very different from their own era. They might put Biblical characters into a sort of stylized
robe-like costume, but for the greater part people assumed that there was no important visual difference between the
past and the present.
Culture was considered to
be a timeless continuum;
part of the greater
Christian drama in which
the modes and manners of
ancient times were for all
intentions the same as
their own, save some few
unimportant variations.
This concept of the
immutable duration of
history, which made it
possible
to
seriously
advocate a return to the
practices of the New
Testament Christians or
Samuel Hall, 1620 Landing (ca. 1800)
1.
This article originally appeared in Old Colony Club Occasional Papers - June 1992.
Reprinted from The Compact, 31 No. 1 [Spring 2010]: 1, 4-5, from www.massmayflower.org website
2
the Classical Greeks in the Reformation and the Renaissance, also prevented artists from depicting the past as
visually different. However, just as the Renaissance introduced visual perspective in art, the Enlightenment
developed the concept of progress and the perception of change over time.
It took some time for this effect to become generally accepted. The earliest artistic representations of the Pilgrims
provide a very good example of this. The first American representation of the Pilgrims was a small print by Samuel
Hall of the 1620 Landing for a Forefathers’ Day dinner invitation issued by the Boston-based “Sons of the Pilgrims”
around 1800.
This print had an amazing vitality – it became the basis for the Corne painting in Pilgrim Hall and the Bartoll
fireboard in Salem. Sent to China, it was reproduced as reverse paintings on glass for Yankee sailors, while in
England it was put by the Enoch Wood company on the 1820 commemorative plates and pitchers. It also displays
the old disregard for change over time. In the Hall engraving and all of the pictures it inspired, the figures landing
on the Rock are contemporary late 18th century
sailors, while the Mayflower looks like a frigate of
Revolutionary times, and the Indians that are
passively witnessing the event look like cigar-store
figures. There is no intent to differentiate 1620 from
1800, or to make the Pilgrims look like, well,
“Pilgrims.” It simply didn’t occur to the artists that
this was possible or desirable.
However, the new perception of the past was
making progress at the same time, even with the
Pilgrims. The huge studio canvas painted by Henry
Sargent of the Landing of the Pilgrims circa 1812 (a
copy of which is in Pilgrim Hall today) shows a
distinct effort at depicting the past as distinct from the
present.
Although the costumes are stagey – more
picturesque than historical – Sargent demonstrates a
Henry Sargent, Landing of the Pilgrims (ca. 1812)
new consciousness about historical representation. As
the Victorian genre of historical painting evolved,
more and more effort was put into accurately
representing the Pilgrims. Old paintings and woodcuts
of the (usually later) 17th century were examined to
improve the authenticity of costuming and
furnishings. By the time Robert Weir was painting the
Embarkation at Delftshaven for the Capitol Building
in Washington, or Charles Cope created his Sailing of
the Mayflower for the House of Lords, in
Westminster, the capacity for historical detail had
reached a level of considerable sophistication.
Although the depictions tended to portray the dress
and accouterments of perhaps a more wealthy class
than our Pilgrims (because available surviving 17th
Robert Weir, Embarkation at Delfshaven
century portraits were generally of people of that
level of status), the period feel was far more accurate than before, or ironically, what would come later.
It is interesting to observe that the early Victorian rendering of the Pilgrims, which took pains to use more or less
period examples of costume, was usually quite colorful, and seldom had the stereotyped buckles and sober suits. If
we only knew the Pilgrims from the naive art of Hall or Corne, or from the earlier Victorians such as Weir or Cope,
we would never recognize the familiar images we now know to be Pilgrims. However, there were other artistic
efforts at work besides the work of the serious historical painters to depict the Pilgrims. By the middle of the 19th
century, the Pilgrims had become so familiar and popular a story that an inevitable process of simplification and
stereotyping began. The new fashion for illustrated magazines and newspapers called for simpler and more easily
Reprinted from The Compact, 31 No. 1 [Spring 2010]: 1, 4-5, from www.massmayflower.org website
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recognized images to tell the Pilgrim story. In addition, Pilgrim caricatures and cartoons began to appear which
required a sort of symbolic shorthand to make the point that the figures shown were indeed Pilgrims.
It is at this point that the familiar Pilgrims appear. An
important influence was a change in contemporary fashion. Even
when there is a concerted towards accuracy, every period is
doomed to recreate the past (and even more so, the future) in its
own image. The earlier Victorians had favored colorful, even loud
colors and patterns in men’s dress. After the mid-century the black
and white style we associate with, for example, Abraham Lincoln
took over in respectable wear for much of the remainder of the
century. Men wore tall black hats and dark suits with a mid-thigh
length frock coat, which were relieved by a bit of white linen only
at the collar and cuffs. This same pattern, with a wider brimmed
hat and a number of buckles, became the standard gear of Pilgrim
propriety. Equally demur Pilgrim women, if slightly more colorful
in the paintings of Pilgrim artist extraordinary George Boughton,
nevertheless had the lines of simple Victorian costume sans
bustles and other furbelows.
By the turn of the century, buckles, blacks and greys predominate. The cartoon Pilgrim/Puritan had become a standard
image in the popular press. There was no difference between these
two factions in the common mind despite the sometimes hysterical
attempts on the part of Pilgrim partisans to differentiate their
heroes from the grim stereotype of the joyless Puritans. The
Pilgrims were becoming mere caricatures, sharing with other such
images
such as witches and Santa Claus their buckles and slightly
George Broughton image
unreal archaic dress.
Since that time a revisionist movement has freed them from the somber colors, but the buckles, bonnets and other
necessary archaic features remain. Despite some strenuous efforts by costume researchers (at Plimoth Plantation),
the basic Pilgrim image has become a fixture in our understanding. The best example of this, besides the perennial
pictures and construction paper hats school children are furnished with each November, is the reaction the Disney
Epcot Center had to the Plantation’s effort at rectifying Pilgrim dress. The Epcot people, about to accouter a Pilgrim
manikin in an exhibit, called the Plantation and asked for appropriate costume patterns. These were duly sent, only
to be rejected. “We can’t outfit our figures with the designs you sent,” they explained, “no one will know they are
Pilgrims!” Thus the artistic representations of the Pilgrims have become so potent that even thoroughly researched
historical accuracy has no appeal in the face of popular preconception. After all, as the Disney group indicated, only
with very particular images can we “know they are Pilgrims.”
© Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2010
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