By Jessica B. Phillips ~ Executive Director
Above the southern fireplace in the Museum's Long Room hangs a portrait of a round faced man wearing a blue coat with heavy silver embroidery. He stares out over the still tavern furniture and empty plated oyster shells with a faint smile. This man is affectionately referred to as Samuel Fraunces, the Tavern's original proprietor and namesake.
Since November 17, 1913 the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York have been proud to refer to the man in the portrait to the left as Samuel Fraunces, a New York City tavern keeper, an entrepreneur, an American Revolution spy, and a professional relation of George Washington. But this article is not about the man but the continued research being conducted on the painting and its sitter.
This 18th century Museum object was purchased by the Society for thirty-five dollars at auction from Merwin Sales Company in 1913. The auction catalogue lists this painting along with other items for sale, "Artist Unknown / Colonial Period / Portrait of Samuel Fraunces. / Canvas. Height 29in.: width, 23in." Since 1913 the portrait has hung proudly in the Museum's galleries and always interpreted as the image of Samuel Fraunces.
Since the portrait is incomparable it has been the source of controversy including its century of creation. In 2016 the pro bono services of art forensic, Dr. Jeffrey Michael Taylor, PhD and Thiago Piwowarczyk determined the painting to be an authentic eighteenth century oil on canvas painting. The team uncovered that at some point in time it was cut down from a full-length portrait and had been conserved sometime in the 1960s.
While this portrait is only one piece among 8,000 in the Museum’s collection, it has been a continual focus of ongoing research. In 2017, the collection began to be put online to increase public access. This portrait was among the first to be posted.
In December of 2017 the Museum received an email inquiry based on our newly accessible online collection. A historian from Germany, Arthur Kuhle, was researching the Prussian court of Frederick the Great, who reigned from 1740 to 1786, and the French born artist Antoine Pesne who was Frederick’s court painter and Pesne’s student, Joachim Martin Falbe. In Mr. Kuhle’s research he stumbled upon the painting to the left at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. This painting is titled “Cavalier” as the name of the sitter is unknown.
While artist may produce work in a similar style to reflect tastes of the time, it is clear that Fraunces Tavern Museum’s portrait and the one at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen are of the same person. But who is he?
Arthur Kuhle has his suspicions. He believes the sitter is a member of Frederick’s most intimate inner circle. In Frederick’s early years he commissioned a portrait cycle. There are four known portraits that are part of a cycle depicting his most intimate friends, who lived with him at his palace in Rheinsberg. But it is well documented that Frederick had six intimates at the time, including Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764) and Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf (1708-1758). Both men are missing from the cycle.
Why would Frederick only have portraits made of some of these men? If the sitter of Fraunces Tavern Museum and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen’s were important enough for Frederick to have Pesne or Falbe produce portraits of, why was his name forgotten to time? Could our portrait actually be of Aglortti or Fredersdorf?
Here is one theory put forth by Kuhle. Frederick the Great is known for his successful victory in the Seven Years War and as the father of the Prussian Enlightenment, with a special devotion to music and science. Fredrick was close friends with such artists as Voltaire and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach). In recent years historians have focused less on Frederick’s accomplishments during his reign but more on his personal life’s connection to the LGBTQ community.
The monarch was often tagged as homosexual by his peers and more recently by scholars and historians. A prime example of this is something his close friend, Voltaire, made public when he published a list of Fredrick’s lovers. Since Frederick’s reign, a homosexual monarch has become less than an ideal. His rather public private life and the depictions of his possible lovers may have been intentionally forgotten to time and gossip to uphold the traditional views and ideals of masculine leadership.
If Fraunces Tavern Museum and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen portraits are of Agloritti or Fredersdorf, how did ours come to be in the United States?