Friday, January 1, 2010

The random monthly pick: Mr. John Bill Ricketts, equestrian extraordinaire and favorite of George Washington

Mr. Ricketts lately from London respectfully acquaints the public that he has erected at considerable expense a circus, situated at the corner of Market and Twelfth Streets where he proposes instructing Ladies and Gentlemen in the elegant accomplishments of riding. -The Circus will be opened on Thursday Next, the 25th October 1792. (Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, 23 October 1792)

Sensing opportunity in the young American Republic, John Bill Ricketts left England and opened first an equestrian academy, later turning it into a circus shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia in 1792. By spring 1793 he had trained enough horses to promote the kind of equestrian entertainment he had headlined in London, and for the first month performed alone in the ring “to the delight of the city's amusement-hungry crowds, which included, on April 24, the nation's most distinguished horseman, President George Washington.”

John Bill Ricketts by Gilbert Stuart ca 1795-99
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Robert B. Noyes in memory of Elisha Riggs. 1942.14.1

This unfinished portrait is of John Bill Ricketts, magical equestrian who rode his talent and riding ability into fame and fortune in the young American Republic, if only for a short period of time. In a spectacular fire in 1799 his circus burned to the ground, he set sail for the West Indies in search of new adventure, was captured by pirates, escaped, regained some of his lost fortune, but upon sailing back to England about 1803, perished forever during the crossing of the seas.

The Stuart portrait was not completed as “...the artist, becoming angry at the equestrian, who gave him a good deal of trouble by his want of promptitude and the delays which occurred, is said to have dashed his paintbrush into the face of the portrait, declaring that he would have nothing more to do with him.” J. Thomas Scharf and T. Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (Philadelphia: L.H.Everts and Co. 1884), Vol II, p 1044

Only the head of Ricketts was completed, but to at least provide some innovation to the picture, Gibby, with a few strokes of the brush, added a few details of a horse’s head to the dark background.

Credit: Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Etching of Mr. Bill Ricketts, "the Equestrian Hero," circa 1796.

“A trained horse, named for the old Seneca chief, “Cornplanter,” which would jump over another horse 14 hands (56 inches) high, was also introduced, and several pantomines were brought out successfully. Among Mr. Ricketts’ various feats at this time were his throwing a somersault over 30 men’s heads and over five horses with their mounted riders; her would also ride two horses at full gallop and leap over a garter or ribbon 12 feet high, or ride the same horses, each foot on a quart-mug standing loose on the saddles, and at times would mount on the shoulders of two riders, each standing on a separate horse, “forming a Pyramid 15 feet hight,” a feat never before attempted by any equestrian. Young Ricketts, emulating his father, would leap over a spiked bar or ride around the ring, his head balanced on a pint-mug resting on the saddle; he would also dismount blind-folded, pick up a watch and remount...”
The circus; its origin and growth prior to 1835, Copyright 1909 by Isaac J. Greenwood New York. pps 86-7

and finally, to mark the end of 2009... ein Goethe-Gedicht zum Jahreswechsel:
Das neue Jahr sieht mich freundlich an,
und ich lasse das alte mit seinem Sonnenschein und Wolken
ruhig hinter mir.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the subject of this particular portrait is not John Bill Ricketts but a later equestrian Jean Breschard.

Einbildungskraft said...

Dear Anonymous,
I wonder what your resource is for naming the subject in the portrait as Jean Breschard? This portrait is named as John Bill Ricketts [Mr. Rechart (or Rickart)] by not only Lawrence Park(1926)and Mason
(1894), but also the current reigning experts on Gilbert Stuart, Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen Miles: please reference their book "Gilbert Stuart" The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, Yale University Press, New Haven, London 2004.
You might tell us more about Jean Breschard...

Einbildungskraft said...

I have been checking into this; there is definitly confusion. First, Mason does in fact identify the portrait as "Breshard, the circus-rider". Mason (1894): "Mr. George W. Riggs, of Washington, has an unfinished picture, which, there is strong reason for believing, was painted by Stuart. Breshard, sometimes called Pritchard, was well known to Stuart. He was a noted rider in his day. The head alone is finished. Two heads of horses are introduced,--one in the background, and the other only faintly sketched in." Lawrence Park seems to begin the confusion by titling the portrait "Mr. Rechart (or Rickart)". In Park's first sentence about the portrait he says that Mason spells the name Breshard or Pritchard... Somehow the Met book clearly states the portrait is of Ricketts, but now I have doubts. Ricketts was a friend of Washington, bought Washington's white horse this makes for a scintillating, believable story! But clearly Breschard and Ricketts are two different people, both circus performers. Possibly the portrait might be of Breschard?! Will do a post, info. welcome, by any experts as well!!!!!
Particularly Christopher H. Jones, who did the research on Ricketts for the 2005 Met book on Stuart.
I will try to look up this individual!

Maureen said...

Very interesting, all sorts of curious things going on at your blog!

Anonymous said...

from Wikipedia:

At present there is some debate as to the identity of the sitter for one of Stuart's unfinished portraits.[21][22] In 1878 "John Bill Ricketts" was identified by George Washington Riggs, also known as "The President's Banker," and trustee for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as "Breschard, the Circus Rider" and as ""Breschard" was publicly displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1880.[23][24]

Stuart and Ricketts did not sail from Dublin to Philadelphia together as some have claimed,[25]. Owing to Stuart's aversion to being cooped up for weeks with a circus, he booked passage on another ship, the Draper, even though its destination was a different American port.

Peter Grain, cited in the “Circus Rider” NGA provenance as owning the painting in the mid-1800s, and as selling the portrait to George W. Riggs, was a member of the Circus of Pépin and Breschard, and would have been capable of identifying the sitter in Stuart’s portrait as Breschard.

In 1970 the National Gallery of Art changed the identification from "Breschard" " to "Ricketts" and to this day the NGA has failed to explain the reason for this identity change.[26]

Einbildungskraft said...

I am working on this.
I am tending to think that the portrait is in fact of Jean Breschard. I hope to hear from Ellen Miles, who wrote on the
portrait of Ricketts for the National Gallery's collection catalogue and for the Met book.

My Farmhouse Kitchen said...

Wanted to stop by and wish you a Happy New Year...

It is HOT down here in San Luis Obispo..How's it your way?
What happened to winter?

Looking forward to more with you in 2010..

Kary and Buddy

Rouchswalwe said...

Frohes Neues! May 2010 be filled with a little fun mystery!

The Clever Pup said...

Mysterious. I hope the anonymous visitor knows (s)he can use a name.

Ricketts has a great story and in my heart I hope he was ship-wrecked on a lovely horse-inhabited island.

Anonymous said...

The birth year of John Bill Ricketts is shrouded in mystery and the death of him remains a mystery as well.

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