This American icon has been reproduced, reconfigured, and the scene reinacted numerous times since it first appeared in its original form at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution. This painting, The Spirit of ’76, is one of the most recognized images of the American Revolution; however, most art critics have held it in disdain since it first appeared. Apparently people decided they wouldn’t listen since more images were sold and passed along than the number of people who actually filed past it at the Exposition.
Archibald MacNeal Willard first named his work of art Yankee Doodle. Word has it that he was asked to change the name once the painting went on display in Philadelphia because the name was already taken by a deranged citizen as a nickname. Willard complied and opted for The Spirit of ’76.
Willard began his art career early on as a graffiti artist in his hometown. Later he fought for the North in the Civil War where he met up with J.F. Ryder, a famous photographer and entrepreneur who sold some of Willard’s work and encouraged him to paint something for the Centennial.
Willard worked on the painting over three years and we know that at least four versions exist. Apparently Williard improved on each copy as time went on. The U.S. State Department owns one of them. The final copy that went on display in Philadelphia depicted Willard’s father as the middle character while the smaller drummer boy was the son of General John Devereux.
Once the painting was done Ryder displayed it in the window of his studio. He knew the image would resonate with visitors to the Centennial when huge crowds gathered in front of his studio to see Willard’s work.
The Spirit of ’76 was displayed at Memorial Hall during the Philadelphia Exposition. Ryder sold chromolithographs of the image to promote the exhibit. More copies of the image were sold for months as the painting went on a national tour and visited several U.S. cities.
It just goes to show you that when something speaks to the American people it speaks loud and clear…..even the passage of time does not serve as a barrier.