Item #6443 [A pair of original drawings, one being a self-portrait and the other a representation of George Washington’s skull]. Alexander Anderson, artist.
[A pair of original drawings, one being a self-portrait and the other a representation of George Washington’s skull].

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Anderson, Alexander, artist.

[A pair of original drawings, one being a self-portrait and the other a representation of George Washington’s skull].

New York, ca. 1798. Both drawings ink and wash. George Washington drawing, 1.5” x 1.125”; self portrait, 1.875” x 1.5”. Drawings mounted together on a single sheet. CONDITION: Drawing of skull rubbed, self portrait creased, both drawings lightly foxed.

A recently discovered, early self-portrait by “the father of American wood engraving” accompanied by another Anderson drawing representing George Washington’s skull (as the artist imagined it), evidently done prior to Washington’s death. The self portrait is quite possibly the earliest extant depiction of Anderson.

These two drawings appear to date from the 1790s. In the portrait, which is annotated in an early hand “Dr. Alexander Anderson his own likeness by himself,” we see Anderson as a young man, seemingly in his twenties (Anderson turned twenty-three in 1798, our circa date here). He is wearing a cravat and stares directly at the viewer. The only other Anderson self portrait of which we are aware is an engraving he made at the age of eighty-eight. An example presented to B. J. Lossing is in the Pomeroy collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

Mounted above the portrait is his drawing of Washington’s skull, skeletal neck, and collarbone. It is captioned “Geo. Washington,” presumably in Anderson’s hand, and is further annotated on the mount “General Washington[.] Drawn before his death[.] The supposed appearance of Washington’s head after death sketched by Dr Alexander Anderson Physician and Surgeon, New York.”

The drawing of Washington’s skull appears to relate to a series of anatomical drawings Anderson made in the 1790s. According to Jane Pomeroy, “In 1794, 1795, and 1796, he recorded in his diary drawing figures from Albinus, and in February, 1797, he had borrowed a book of ‘very old’ engravings, once again copying an anatomical figure.” In 1798 Anderson executed a large wood engraving of a skeleton based on Albinus (only one copy is known to have survived, which is held by New York Historical). Although certainly of a somewhat generic character, the drawing of Washington’s skull nevertheless bears a noteworthy resemblance to the skull in the wood engraving, especially in the orientation of the head. In any case, the subject matter here and the date of Washington’s death (1799) place the drawing squarely in the 1790s.

This sheet was formerly in an autograph album compiled in the early nineteenth century by English composer Joseph Mazzinghi (1765–1844), the author of numerous operas, pianoforte sonatas, and airs for pianoforte and harp. While many of the autographs Mazzinghi collected are letters and envelopes addressed to him by various—mostly European—luminaries, the means by which he acquired the Anderson drawings is unclear. Interestingly, his annotations suggest that he acquired them with a very specific understanding of their subjects (e.g., Washington’s head before death, the portrait a self portrait). Whether they were acquired directly from Anderson himself or via an intermediary will unfortunately remain a mystery.

Alexander Anderson (1775–1870) was born in New York, the son of Sarah Lockwood and John Anderson, the publisher of the rebel newspaper The Constitutional Gazette. His artistic ability became evident at an early age and he soon developed a strong sense of art as a vocation. Nevertheless, his parents prevailed on him to study medicine, apprenticing him to Doctor Joseph Young at the age of fourteen. In 1795, he was appointed resident physician at Bellevue Hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. The treatment options being limited, he witnessed many perish. Things turned worse still during another epidemic in 1798, when he lost his wife, infant child, both parents, his brother, and most of his friends to the disease. Anderson left medicine soon afterwards and entered the field of professional engraving, enjoying a long and highly productive career. Anderson’s contribution to the visual culture of the nineteenth century was enormous, his wood engravings (or stereotypes from them) illustrating countless publications.

Naturally enough, Anderson, who lived to the age of ninety-five, never quite got over the tremendous loss he experienced in 1798. An undated poem in his papers reads:

Ah! what avails a long protracted life,
A hopeless, helpless misery of years,
A tortured witnessing of madmen’s strife,
Their blasted hopes, their rage, their groans & tears.
We pity those who fall in youth’s gay bloom,
Far happier they than those who mourn their fate.
The tranquil rest, the slumber of the tomb
Is bliss compar’d with Life’s mysterious state.

In light of this loss, it is hard not to see these two drawings paired together—the skull looming over Anderson’s head—as an emblem of the acute sense of death he carried with him throughout his life, however unintended the effect might be.

REFERENCES: Pomeroy, Jane. Alexander Anderson, 1775–1870, Wood Engraver and Illustrator, an Annotated Bibliography (2005), pp. 58–61; “‘Of Some Consequence.’ Alexander Anderson: Distinguished Doctor, Accomplished Artist” at New York Historical Society Museum & Library online.

Item #6443


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