Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alexander Hamilton and George Washington

Jean Fritz’s George Washington's Breakfast and And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? really spurred my interest in American history, so it was a treat to make a few illustrations for her latest book, Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider.



(It’s also available via Indiebound.)

The book was to be illustrated with many old engravings and drawings (including several by Howard Pyle) and my role was to create a frontispiece and five “section openers” that would hint at the themes discussed in the subsequent chapters, but which would not necessarily be literal depictions of specific events. More “evocations” than illustrations.

For the section titled “Aide-de-Camp” I needed to show Hamilton with George Washington, who had picked the young officer to serve on his staff in 1777. Although he was a proven and gallant fighter, Hamilton’s job mostly involved writing, but he got to a point where, as Ron Chernow says in his monumental biography:
He was able to project himself into Washington’s mind and intuit what the general wanted to say, writing it up with instinctive tact and deft diplomatic skills. It was an inspired act of ventriloquism: Washington gave a few general hints and, presto, out popped Hamilton’s letter in record time.
So, initially, I decided to show Hamilton at his desk, with the general looming above him. The setting I chose was inside Washington’s Headquarters (also known as the Ford Mansion) in Morristown, New Jersey. The curved top of the image comfortably accommodated the fanlight of the front door of the house...


But I got carried away with symmetry of the thing, and the figures began to look too much like an antique jumping-jack toy. So I started over. This time I placed them outside, as if on the way back from inspecting the soldiers’ cabins at Morristown or at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.


I wasn’t so sure about Hamilton’s headgear, though: he was an artillery officer, but I thought that, while serving as Washington’s aide, maybe he wore a tricorne hat, so I replaced the more helmet-like cap in the final art. I also added a decorative border to the final art, which I made with ink on scratchboard. And voilà!

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