Fort Ticonderoga, built by the French at the south end of Lake Champlain in upstate New York at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War in 1755, is the site of some near-legendary battles. One, when in July 1758 the small French garrison defeated a British force five times their number, held the dubious record for being the bloodiest battle in American history until the Civil War. Another occurred when Ethan Allan, his Green Mountain Boys and Benedict Arnold leading Massachusetts and Connecticut militias took the fort from the British garrison on May 10, 1775.
Less than a month after Lexington and Concord and over a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga was the first American victory of the Revolution. The weapons and heavy artillery recovered from the fort were used to lift the siege of Boston, and Ethan Allan claiming all the credit for taking the fort was a slight that Benedict Arnold never forgot, an important rung in the ladder to his eventual betrayal of the nascent United States.
In the years following the Revolutionary War, the fort became property of the State of New York, which donated it to local universities, which in 1820 sold it to merchant William Ferris Pell, scion of a wealthy and politically influential family. It would be the Pells who undertook a program of complete restoration of the fort, 91 years after they bought it. It was in desperate condition by then. The British had abandoned it after their defeat in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, destroying many of its fortifications and buildings on the way out. They withdrew permanently after the surrender at Yorktown in 1781, and then the locals moved in to harvest stone and metal for construction. You can see some late 19th century pictures of Ticonderoga’s dilapidated condition in the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic pictures at the New York Public Library.
In 1909, Stephen H.P. Pell began the full restoration of Fort Ticonderoga. At the same time, his formidable suffragette wife Sarah restored the King’s Garden, a walled formal garden that is widely considered a masterpiece of period garden design, working with landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin, the first academically trained woman landscape architect in America. Stephen and Sarah Pell also spent decades collecting period art and armaments to create the core of a museum collection. In 1960 the fort would become one of the country’s first National Historic Landmarks, and is today a museum that boasts one of the most extensive collections of 18th century militaria, rivaling even the collections at the Smithsonian and the Tower of London.
This summer and fall, however, it’s not the cannon and muskets that are the focus; it’s the museum’s rarely seen art collection. The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced through the Eyes of America’s Great Artists brings together for the first time 50 pieces from the Fort’s collection to provide a visual history of the Fort and its role in American history and American arts. They’ve been on display at different times, but this is the first exhibit that showcases all of the most important paintings in the collection.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is [Hudson River School founder Thomas] Cole’s 1826 work, “Gelyna, or a View Near Ticonderoga.” Considered the fort’s most valuable and important piece, the painting depicts a fictionalized scene of a British officer coming to the aid of a wounded comrade lying on a wilderness outcropping, while smoke rises in the distant background from the 1758 Battle of Ticonderoga. It’s the earliest known piece signed by Cole, an English-born artist regarded as the founder of the 19th-century American art movement known as the Hudson River School.
“Once his work gained popularity, it seemed the artists who were doing these types of dramatic landscapes began to copy his style,” Fox said.
It’s not just romanticized war scenes and portraits of George Washington painted by American masters, though. There are also images made during war by the people fighting it. Two powder horns are on display, engraved by the soldiers who carried them with maps and images of what they saw before them. One powder horn was engraved in 1759 with a map of the British siege works outside the fort.
“They can be very important documents of what people were actually seeing,” [Curator of Collections Christopher] Fox said. “I included two powder horns in this exhibit to make the point that art isn’t just paintings and prints that you hang on the wall.”