Although he was born in Western Massachusetts in 1817, Edwin White received most of his training education in Düsseldorf, where he learned to adopt Carl Wilhelm Hübner’s (1814-1879) refined and ultra-detailed technique. White had already made a name for himself in the United States, excelling in both genre subjects and portraits. While in Europe however, the artist struggled to obtain any commissions and a year before he started completing the present work, he confessed to his friend Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), that his return to America was imminent. Once in New York, White surprisingly did not resume his portrait commissions, but instead worked on an ambitious history subject: The Compact of the Mayflower.
Written and signed by the male passengers of the Mayflower on November 11, 1620 shortly after their ship mistakenly anchored off Provincetown Harbor (an unexpected storm forced the Pilgrims to settle north of where English authorities had authorized them to anchor), the Mayflower Compact bound its signers to a temporary, self-proclaimed body politic, with the future goal of forming a more formal government, respectful of everyone’s religious beliefs. Here, White choses to depict the exact moment when the Pilgrims join in prayer, all led by William Brewster (1568-1644), a Moses-like figure who stands at the table holding the document they are about to sign. Sunlight streams into the cabin dramatically from the skylight and onto the Compact as Brewster extends his left arm upward with an open palm. Even though only men signed the document, White distills a sense of unified community, showing several families and even placing some mothers in the foreground.
The Signing of the Compact in the Cabin of the Mayflower quickly became famous and crowned White as one of the most talented artists of his generation.
“There are very few among the Düsseldorf pictures, which deal with this class of subjects that are not unpleasantly exaggerated and melodramatic.” said the editor of Harper’s Magazine in 1856-57. He continued: “Lessing’s Huss at the Council and the Stake are both liable to this objection, fine as they are. Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and Departure of Columbus both fail in this respect (…) It is very difficult, indeed, to mass a group of figures engaged in some common action without making it strained and stiff, or unduly exaggerating the chief figure. Mr. White has felicitously eluded this snare. His picture has all the simplicity of reality. It is rich and affluent in detail; the light happily falls through the hatchway full upon the face of Elder Brewster and upon the Contract, which is the center of interest. The likenesses are good, the costumes accurate, and the whole is full of repose and feeling (…) It is to be engraved and is quite as worthy that honor as many of the pictures which have recently become so popular through that means.”
The Signing of the Compact in the Cabin of the Mayflower marked the start of a new career for Edwin White, who successfully sold it off his easel for $1,000. According to the Harper’s still, “the gentleman who was fortunate enough to buy it, bought one of the best works ever painted in this country.” Discovering in himself a talent for historical pieces, White returned to Paris two years later, where he started working on another big project, Washington Resigning his Commission.
A decade later, White executed a larger (partly unfinished) copy of the present work, now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, which also owns more than twenty preparatory sketches for the painting.The Signing of the Compact in the Cabin of the Mayflower later became the basis for a 5-cent stamp issued in 1920 for the Pilgrim Tercentenary.
American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists
Auction | June 14 | 2PM EST