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Behold The Man, American folk art, circa 1860-1876, from a private Pennsylvania collection

Behold The Man, American folk art, circa 1860-1876, from a private Pennsylvania collection

“Behold The Man,” that’s the phrase on this American folk art watercolor I discovered today at the Maryland Antiques Show.  The painting shows George Washington with his arm extended in the style of the famous Gilbert Stuart painting.

My friend Jamie invited me to attend the event, benefitting the Auxiliary for Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland, which raises money for local non-profit organizations. Jamie will be in charge of the event next year and has been saying for a while that I should get involved. “There are nerdy things in there,” she promised. And she was right! There are lots of things you can discover at an antique show.

Here’s what I learned: apparently “Behold The Man”  is a common Washington image in American art. A quick Internet search shows that the phrase, often appearing with a longer title, “The Effect of Principle, Behold the Man,” is frequently associated with items, such as textiles and engravings, commemorating the 1796 speech Washington made on his resignation from public life. The phrase is sometimes seen along with a quote from Washington’s eulogy. I am not a Washington scholar, so if someone has more insight into this, please let me know.

More Internet searching reveals that “Behold the man” is a well-known Latin phrase, “Ecco Homo,” with Biblical references. Here is what wikipedia says, “From the Gospel of John, Book 19, Verse 5. Pontius Pilate speaks these words as he presents Jesus, crowned with thorns, to the crowd. It is also the title of Nietzsche’s autobiography and a 1969 science fiction novel by Michael Moorcock.”

Copying the famous Washington pose with a famous Gilbert Stuart painting, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, January 2012

Another online site says that there is a legend that the phrase “The Effect of Principle, Behold the Man” can be found inscribed above a full length picture of Washington.

I encountered the “Behold The Man” painting (above) in the booth of “The Norwoods’ Spirit of America,” who focus on 18th and early 19th century Americana. Doug and Bev Norwood (from Maryland) graciously allowed me to take photos of their pieces and shared with me their knowledge of these American antiques. (They don’t have a website or shop, but they have displays at antique shows. You can e-mail them at spiritofamerica@comcast.net)

Bev also showed me a reverse painted glass piece featuring George and Martha Washington (image below). It’s really cool.

The caption in the Norwoods’ booth says “Eglomise Reverse Painted Glass with silhouettes of George and Martha Washington and intricate lattice background, circa 1850-1876”

Thanks again to Bev and Doug Norwood for teaching me more about American art, and thanks to Jamie for getting me to the Antiques Show. If you are around next February, you should come to the show, which will take place February 21-24 (2013) at the Crowne Plaza in Timonium, MD. Come see for yourself that, as the painting suggests, George Washington is “a man to behold.”

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