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A Portrait of Davy Crockett

On 17 August, 1786, just a few years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Davy Crockett was born. He lived an exciting life in Tennessee when that region was the "wild frontier". He ran away from home at the age of just thirteen. From that time on he more or less set out to make his own way. In the course of time his native intelligence and gregarious story-telling ability brought him notoriety in Tennessee. On a dare he ran for the State House of Representatives. Later, capitalizing on his growing fame, he subsequently ran for Congress in 1828 and served several terms.

Chapman portrait of Davy Crockett
Crockett had served with General Jackson in the Seminole Wars and had long been an admirer. But when it came to politics, Crockett found himself siding with the Whigs against (the new president) Jackson. Davy Crockett could not agree with policies that violated Indian treaties and stripped the country of its ability to regulate its money supply. When Democrats accused him of betraying Jackson he adroitly turned their aspersions against them, saying, "I shall insist upon it that I am still a Jackson man, but General Jackson is not; he has become a Van Buren man."

This backcountry wit soon gained him renown in the East. First a play was made based on his life, then biographies were written about him. He thought the accounts of his life rather fanciful. Finally, he wrote his own biography to set the story straight. While on a tour to promote the book, he sat for several portraits. His favorite was the one shown above. John Gadsby Chapman was a prominent artist at the time, and he requested Crockett's permission to paint him. Chapman produced a fairly typical image that Crockett found mundane. He said, "Dare say its like enough, because it's like all the other painters make of me, a sort of cross between a clean shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist Preacher." He wanted a portrait that showed him the way his audience saw him and also the way he felt most comfortable with himself.

Crockett told Chapman, "If you could catch me on a bear-hunt in a 'harrican', with hunting tools and gear, and a team of dogs, you might make a picture worth looking at." Chapman decided to take up the challenge. The city of Washington was scoured for props and stray dogs. When Chapman proposed that his own high-bred dog be used Crockett acquiesced on terms that it be "stuck into one corner" so that its "playful tail" could not be seen. Davy Crockett's enthusiasm began to wane when he saw the painting progress and the pose seemed stilted. One day he walked into the studio with a loud war whoop, his hat raised above his head. Chapman thought it more appropriate and Crockett liked the idea so the painting would depict the frontier hero with his hat in hand raised high in the air.

William Groneman III, author of "David Crockett: Hero of the Common Man", wrote, "The portrait gives the impression that Crockett is waving farewell to the East for the last time, and is about to turn his face westward, an impression that would prove prophetic." Indeed, Crockett was nearing the end of his famous life. At the time the painting was executed in 1834, he was 48 years old. His adventures would take him back to Tennessee and then on to Texas to be present at the Alamo, where he would die a heroic death that would cement his image for ever in the American consciousness.

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W.J. Rayment


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