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Authentic Farragut: Previously unknown portraits of the Nation’s first admiral come to light

By Chuck Winans and Ronald S. Coddington 

Pauline Philip was about 8 years old when she met David Farragut. Tall and broad shouldered despite advancing age and the rigors of the recent war, he greeted her with a genial smile, a handshake and kindly words.

Farragut called on Pauline’s home on Madison Street in Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit her father, sculptor William Henry Philip. After exchanging pleasantries, the two men likely withdrew to Philip’s studio, located in the three-story brick residence. Pauline recalled years later that it was one of several visits by the famed admiral to the studio to sit for a bust created by her father.

Philip eventually completed the piece. Farragut reacted positively in a letter dated Nov. 11, 1866. “Of course I am not a good judge of my own likeness,” he explained, with humility common to public figures of the time. “But so far as I am able to decide and with the aid of my wife and friends who have seen it, I do not hesitate to say, that I think it an excellent likeness and the work itself finely gotten up both in style & drapery, the latter being taken from the actual uniform worn by me during the late rebellion and at the time the Bust was unveiled.” Farragut’s wife, Virginia, proclaimed in a separate letter about the same time that, “I am convinced nothing could be better of him in marble.”

“Photographs given to me by Admiral Farragut of himself—One in uniform and the other in citizen’s dress.”

The bust received more praise following its exhibition to the membership of a veteran’s group, the Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the State of New York. The recording secretary stated in a formal thank you note, “As a work of art it was universally admired, and the correctness of the likeness was attested to especially by those companions of the Order—naval officers—who have known Admiral Farragut intimately for many years.” Farragut led the Commandery from May 1866 until his death in 1870 at age 69.

These letters, prized possessions of a descendant of the sculptor, prove the success of the bust. Another surviving relic connected to these documents is a pair of cartes de visite of Farragut. Found in an envelope, they also carry a period pencil notation in Philip’s hand: “Photographs given to me by Admiral Farragut of himself—One in uniform and the other in citizen’s dress.” According to family lore, Farragut had sent them to Philip to inform him in his creative pursuits. They were produced by the studio of photographer Charles D. Fredricks, located on 587 Broadway, midway between Farragut’s home on East 36th Street and Philip’s place on Madison Avenue in Brooklyn.

Admiral Farragut by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City. William Henry Philip Papers, Chuck Winans Collection.
Admiral Farragut by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City. William Henry Philip Papers, Chuck Winans Collection.

Authorities on the admiral confirm that these portraits have never been seen until now.

The provenance of the images begs a number of intriguing questions. Is this how Farragut saw himself? Is this how he wanted future generations to remember him? Or, did Farragut simply comply with an artist’s request for reference photos?

The admiral’s character and conduct suggests he selected these images with purpose. A thoughtful observer and listener, Farragut actively managed his military reputation to protect it from being tarnished. He sat for a remarkable number of portraits—at least 54 by one count—on scale with Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In 1863, Farragut brought rising literary star Henry Howard Brownell on to his staff as a personal secretary. The “Battle Laureate,” as he came to be known, witnessed the Battle of Mobile Bay while on board Farragut’s flagship, Hartford. Brownell’s epic war poem, “Bay Fight,” greatly enhanced Farragut’s status as a Union hero.

An old envelope in which Philip stored the Farragut cartes de visite. William Henry Philip Papers, Chuck Winans Collection.
An old envelope in which Philip stored the Farragut cartes de visite. William Henry Philip Papers, Chuck Winans Collection.

As the war came to a close, the admiral accepted an invitation from the citizens of New York City to make the nation’s financial and cultural capital his home. The invitation included a gift of $50,000, valued in today’s dollars at more than $750,000.

New York’s booming metropolis boasted a thriving community of artists, including Brooklyn-native Philip, a retiring man described by one biographer as “held in deservedly high estimation, and having great enthusiasm and industry in his art.”

Born on Aug. 15, 1829, Philip’s aptitude for art surfaced during his childhood. He loved to play with clay, modeling little sculptures that revealed his gifts. He began his formal training at the art department of the Brooklyn Institute, and continued his education with American masters abroad. In his mid-teens, he traveled to Italy and studied for a time in Florence with neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers. He furthered his education in Rome with Thomas Crawford, perhaps best known for his works in the U.S. Capitol.

Two accounts of Philip’s foundational years offer conflicting details about the funding of his studies. One story suggests that the money came from profits of Philip’s Bakery, a well-regarded establishment in Brooklyn owned by his father, Prussian-born Gottfried Wilhelm Philippe (William Godfrey Philip). The elder Philip was also remembered for supplying bread to defenders of his adopted city during the War of 1812. Another account claims that Philip had resolved to study in Rome, but lacking the means shipped aboard a merchant vessel bound for the Mediterranean. The latter version includes an anecdote that his studies with the great Powers ended suddenly after Philip criticized his masterpiece, “The Greek Slave,” within earshot of the distinguished artist.

Philip emerged from his experiences in Europe as a sculptor of promise. Back in America, he honed his abilities. Meanwhile, the Civil War divided the country and drained America of men and materials—and created a demand for sculpture to memorialize the Union’s political and military leaders. The lucrative market for such representations extended into the 20th Century. Competition for public and private commissions attracted artists from across the country, including Philip.

Among his notable wartime works is a bust of Secretary of State William H. Seward that received qualified praise from President Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1864, “I have seen your Bust of Secretary Seward, and think it very good; though I must add that I do not consider myself a good judge in such matters.” According to the family, Seward was so pleased with the likeness that he commissioned Philip to model a bust of Lincoln. The work was done after Lincoln’s assassination, and praised by Seward as a success.

Philip sculpted a marble bust of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for the Young Men’s Christian Association of Philadelphia. The artist’s daughter may have referenced this artwork when she recalled that Grant stopped by the Brooklyn studio to sit for her father. She left no recollection as to the general’s manner or personality, unlike the warm greeting she remembered from Farragut.

Though the exact number of visits by Farragut to the studio is unknown, the interactions between the admiral and artist resulted in an anecdote related to the Battle of Mobile Bay. According to an 1880 profile of Philip in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Mr. Philip says that the Admiral told him that he was not lashed to the mast to prevent his being precipitated to the deck by the pitching or rolling of the ship, as we generally supposed. ‘I had only in my mind,’ said the admiral. ‘The possibility of being wounded so as to render it impossible to keep my position, in which event I might have fallen to the deck and been killed outright, whereas, being lashed to the mast, I could have been taken down by my brave boys, perhaps without further injury.’”

The Daily Eagle also reported that Farragut presented Philip with the coat he wore while lashed to the mast of the Hartford. The garment, a single-breasted, four-button fatigue blouse, bears the insignia of a rear admiral, consistent with Farragut’s rank at the time of the battle. It does not however, match engravings and paintings of the historic event that picture Farragut dressed in a double-breasted coat. Pauline donated the artifact to the Smithsonian Institution in 1910.

Philip’s model for the Farragut competition. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Pauline Philip Lapidge.
Philip’s model for the Farragut competition. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Pauline Philip Lapidge.

Pauline also donated a statue of the admiral to the museum. Partially complete and showing signs of deterioration, it may have been part of Philip’s entry for a national competition to design a bronze memorial of Farragut for the federal government.

The search for a monument sculptor began in the spring of 1872, less than two years after Farragut died. Congress appropriated $20,000 for a statue designated for Farragut Square or other public grounds in Washington, D.C. About two-dozen men and women answered the call for entries, including Philip. His chief competition came from Vinnie Ream, who, at age 18 in 1866, became the youngest artist and first woman to receive a government art commission, awarded for a statue of Lincoln.

Back in Brooklyn, the Daily Eagle predictability came out in favor of its native son. “Mr. Philip is probably better qualified to execute a statue of Farragut than any other sculptor, as he modeled a bust of the late Admiral from life, and had extraordinary opportunities of studying his great personal characteristics, all of which are so important in the execution of such works. Mr. Philip’s marble portrait bust of Farragut, which was exhibited at the late Kings County Fair is generally conceded to be the best likeness of the Admiral ever taken.”

The newspaper also derided Vinnie Ream, who reportedly visited the fair. “We have no doubt that all the ideas which Miss Ream can lay claim to in regard to the personal appearance of Admiral Farragut she gained from a personal study of Mr. Philip’s bust.”

In the end, the Congressional committee did not select a winner. A new resolution designated that the Secretary of the Navy, General of the Army and Farragut’s widow should decide upon a sculptor. Secretary George M. Robeson, Gen. William T. Sherman and Virginia Farragut made their selection on Dec. 1, 1874—Vinnie Ream.

Vinnie Ream’s statue of the admiral in Farragut Square, Washington, D.C. Chuck Myers for MI.
Vinnie Ream’s statue of the admiral in Farragut Square, Washington, D.C. Chuck Myers for MI.

Ream’s final full-length statue depicts a strong, confident Farragut with one foot perched upon the stump of a rope-entwined mast. He grasps a telescopic spyglass much in the way a slugger might hold his baseball bat in the on-deck circle. One can easily imagine him beginning the assent to that place in the rigging of the Hartford from which he is best remembered. The sculpture serves as a fitting tribute to a peerless defender of the Union and the most distinguished commander of the naval war from 1861 to 1865.

Whether Philip’s bust of Farragut inspired any aspect of her statue is unclear. Ream never acknowledged Philip, though she may indeed have been impressed if, in fact, she saw it, as the Daily Eagle claimed. A comparison of the two pieces is not possible, as Philip’s bust is currently lost to history, a fate that befell many of his works during the years following his death from pneumonia in 1882 at age 53. The bust did not appear among Pauline’s 1910 Smithsonian donation, though a number of other examples were included. Today, these sculptures reside at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.

And what of the cartes de visite? Farragut’s reasons for sharing these specific views may forever remain a mystery. But, one can reasonably conclude that he hand-selected each image with the intent to preserve his most authentic likeness for posterity.

Special thanks to Paul DeHaan, Ron Field and Earl Sheck.

References: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 10, 1873, June 19, 1880, May 25, 1882, and April 8, 1934; Alfred Thayer Mann, Admiral Farragut; Henry R. Stiles, A History of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. II; Abraham Lincoln to William H. Philip, July 29, 1864, The Rail Splitter: A Journal for the Lincoln Collector; William Henry Philip Papers, Chuck Winans Collection; Loyall Farragut, Life of David Glasgow Farragut, First Admiral of the United States Navy; Executive Documents Printed by Order of the Senate of the United States for the Second Session of the Forty-Third Congress, 1874-’75, and the Special Session of the Senate in March, 1875.

Chuck Winans is the great-great grandson of Brooklyn sculptor William H. Philip. After spending more than 30 years in the performing arts, including a decade as an award-winning performance photographer, he now resides in Chicago where he works in the legal field. Winans is a longtime Civil War aficionado and the owner of these two images of Admiral Farragut, which have been in his family for 150 years.  

Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.

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