Source: Grosse Pointe News Online

Perry breaks the line

by Brad Lindberg Staff Writer

October 03, 2013

TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART — “Commodore Perry, I presume?”

No, that’s not it.

“Gentlemen, start your engines.”

Way off.

“We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

That’s it.

With those nine words, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry 200 years this week flashed one of the most dramatic after-action reports in the history of American naval warfare.

It rivals “Sighted sub, sank same” of World War II.

Yet, Perry’s victory over a British squadron on Sept. 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie — a victory historians rate as the turning point in the War of 1812 — is overshadowed by lesser victories in greater wars.

Likewise, Perry’s action report, while known generally, is known indistinctly.

It’s due to the War of 1812’s identity problem.

“I think the Civil War eclipsed it,” said Edward Hill, curator of, “Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie,” an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art through Nov. 10.

Hill added, “Some historians consider the War of 1812 a continuation of our Revolutionary War, that we were declaring our freedom from Great Britain, finally.”

Many of Perry’s contemporaries agreed.

“The last roar of cannon that died along the shores of Lake Erie was the expiring note of British domination,” wrote Washington Irving, of “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow” fame, and biographer, soon after the battle.

Toledo’s exhibition centers around Thomas Birch’s 1814 oil painting, “The Battle of Lake Erie,” on loan from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

Birch, born in London, England, spent his adulthood in Philadelphia and belonged to the academy.

His “Battle” painting, measuring 5 1/2-by-8 feet, is more relevant as a snapshot of history than as art for the ages.

He began the work less than a month following Perry’s victory.

“Right after the battle, there was great demand from the public for images of Perry and the scene itself,” Hill said.

While some artists pursued drama, Birch sought accuracy.

“He wrote Perry a couple of letters, one of which approved of the arrangement of the ships,” Hill said. “It’s an accurate depiction of the battle.”

Hill rendered the opposing fleets — nine American and six English ships, brigs, schooners and sloops — in a pyramidal composition.

Perry’s ravaged flagship, the 20-gun brig Lawrence, is front and center. Although its hull and rigging are riddled and sprung from repeated enemy broadsides, the American flag flies from the stern.

Action in the painting takes place in the middle ground.

Perry has shifted his command to the undamaged brig, Niagara, and breaks the English line. Imminent capitulation is partially obscured by flashes of gunpowder and clouds of cannon smoke.

“Perry insisted the surrender take place on the Lawrence so people could see the cost of the battle,” Hill said. “The decks were awash with blood and body parts.”

Images in the center of the canvas are sharper and more detailed than those on the wings. As the scene fans out, ships lose specific features.

Birch’s imagines a perspective from the deck of a ship a few hundred yards away from the battle.

Hill reinforced the effect by displaying the painting so the bottom edge is about three feet off the ground. The horizon comes to waist level.

“It makes you feel like you’re part of the battle,” Hill said.

Some 40 works comprise the exhibition, including Toledo’s portrait of Perry by Gilbert Stuart.

“Stuart was slow on the commission of his paintings,” Hill said. “At his death, all he finished of Perry was the head. His (16-year-old) daughter, Jane, finished the figure. She filled in the background and painted a uniform on it.”

Other items include two prints of the battle, copies of which Perry owned.

There are drawings, prints, manuscripts, maps and a copy of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.

“It’s one of six copies known to exist,” Hill said.

Treaty signatories include John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.

“Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie” runs through Nov. 10, at the Toledo Museum of Art. Admission to the museum and exhibition are free. The museum is located at 2445 Monroe Street at Scottwood Ave., west of downtown Toledo and one block off I-75 with exit posted. For more information, call (800) 644-6862 or visit