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In the Press: Newport Mercury Hessian Painting

Newport Mercury, December 23, 2009

Collection 2009: Five Newport Cultural, Historic and Arts Institutions Pick Their Favorite Gifts Received This Year

By Janine Weisman

To: Newport Historical Society
From: Mary Gall

No one knows the name of the artist who created the oil painting depicting Washington Square as seen from the steps of the Colony House in 1818. But local lore has it he was a Hessian soldier said to have done time in debtor’s prison. The painting may have even been how he got out. Now it hangs in the Muse­um of Newport History in the Brick Market, the 1762 building featured very prominently in the painting.

One day last spring, Newport Historical Society Executive Director Ruth Taylor received a phone call from a Pennsylva­nia woman informing her she had “the other Hessian paint­ing.” The woman was Mary Gall, whose maternal grandmother had been an art and antiques collector in Newport. Taylor drove to Gall’s Gladwyne, Pa., home to see the 21 x 30.5 inch oil painting and found it looked just like the one the society already owns except for the color palette. The society’s painting depicts a sunny day in 1818 while cloudy skies hovered over the scene in Gall’s. But the groupings of townspeople in the scene — including a little boy and his wheelbarrow in the lower left corner and the three ladies in white promenading with others on the lower right — are the same.

Were these two paintings done by the same artist? “You could make a case either way, in my opinion,” Taylor said. “You can picture two people sitting side-by-side and looking over each other’s shoulder.”

That mystery led the historical society’s staff to choose Gall’s gift as their favorite of the 37 donation lots received in 2009. The painting was restored through the generosity of board member and fine art dealer Roger King and eventually will be hung next to its sunny-day twin.

“This is forcing us to do more research,” said Taylor, who has been combing through the 1818 editions of Mercury in the soci­ety’s collection searching for news of who had been sent to debtor’s prison or who had gotten out of it.

“The great thing about Newport is yeah, I think we’re going to find the answer.”