This painting depicts one of the most defining moments in American history. A great epoch of human sacrifice, Valley Forge has come to symbolize the courage and perseverance of the Continental Army when the winter of 1777-1778 tested the army's resolve perhaps more than any other moment during the Revolutionary War. So confident that the brutal conditions of Valley Forge itself would dissolve Washington's army, General Howe never advanced on the camp. However, despite extraordinary hardships, the Continental Army left Valley Forge with an abounding dedication to liberty and a firm certainty of General George Washington's ability to deliver independence to America.
Washington's troops were ill-prepared for the exceptionally cold winter. They lacked food, ammunition, clothing, blankets, and shoes. Shelters proved insufficient. Disease was rampant and desertion, mutiny, and a British attack were constantly feared. In a letter sent to the President of Congress on December 23, 1777, Washington reported the dire situation. Gravely concerned for his men's well-being as their destitute condition left them unable to make any stand against a nearby British foraging party, Washington wrote:
I am now convinced, beyond a doubt that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can; rest assured Sir this is not an exaggerated picture... (George Washington, "Letter to the President of Congress" (December 23, 1777) in Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six (1958; reprint, New York, 1995), p. 644).
Matteson most likely takes inspiration from this letter and vividly portrays the bleakness Washington described. Setting the scene, Washington writes that his men "occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets." The ragged soldiers in the foreground may be the men Washington described when he wrote "we have no less than 2898 Men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot and otherwise naked" or "we have now little occasion of few men having more than one Shirt, many only the Moiety of one, and Some none at all." In the background, troops huddled by the fire illustrate Washington's comment that "numbers are oblig'd to sit up all night by fire instead of taking comfortable rest in the natural way" (Commager and Morris, pp. 645-646).
Washington expressed his deepest sympathies for these hardships his men endured and ends his letter writing that "I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, wch. It is neither in my power to relieve or prevent" (Commager and Morris, p. 646). In Matteson's painting, Washington exudes an internal light and offers his hand to his soldiers defining his commitment to his men as well as his commitment to the cause. This gave his men the strength and courage to persevere. According to one witness, despite the harsh conditions of Valley Forge, "every soldier labored through mud and cold with a song on his lips extolling war and Washington" (Alfred Hoyt Bill, Valley Forge: The Making of an Army (New York, 1952), p. 113).
Tompkins Matteson (1813-1884)
It is believed that Tompkins Matteson (fig. 1) was taught to paint by a skilled Chenango Valley Indian carver and drawer by the name of Abe Antone (1750-1823). Antone was jailed in Morrisville, New York after he confessed to four brutal murders. Matteson's father, then the deputy sheriff, allowed young Tompkins to visit with the convict and learn to paint by copying his drawings. After working in a dry goods store and as an apprentice tailor, Matteson became an itinerant artist and traveled the state painting portraits. By the 1830s, Matteson came to New York City where he received the attention and encouragement of Colonel John Trumbull. Matteson trained at the National Academy of Design and settled in Sherburne, New York in 1839 (Sherburne Art Society, Tompkins H. Matteson: 1813-1884 (Sherburne, New York, 1949), pp. 20-21).
During the 1840s and early 1850s Henry S. Sadd disseminated engravings of Matteson's work such as his Spirit of '76, which brought Matteson widespread acclaim (George Stamm Chamberlain, Studies on American Paintings and Sculptors of the 19th Century (Annandale, Virginia, 1965), p. 19). Like a majority of his patriotic paintings, this scene blended a genre style with a historic theme. George Washington at Valley Forge is one of the few historic paintings Matteson created that directly used specific scenes from history. Another painting, with related compositional styling as well as a similar depiction of Washington, is now in the collection of the Swope Musuem (fig. 2).