Found  /  Discovery

How a Curator at the Museum of the American Revolution Solved a Nearly 250-Year-Old Art Mystery

An eye-witness depiction of the Continental Army passing through Philadelphia hung in a New York apartment for decades.

Art collector Judith Hernstadt knew that she was looking at something special. It was the mid-1970s and she was buying a batch of sketches from a New York antiques dealer. One charming 18th-century drawing caught her eye. It was a rare depiction of women with a mysterious inscription partially torn off: “An exact representation of a waggon belonging to the north carolina brigade of continental troops which passed thro Philadelphia august done by…”

The illustrator was unknown, but the dealer said the work came from a home in Cherry Hill that once belonged to a doctor who treated artists during the Revolutionary War. It turned out that the sketch contained enormous historical significance as one of maybe a dozen eyewitness depictions of the Continental Army that still exists; even rarer was its portrayal of women camp followers, the lesser-known group that joined their enlisted husbands or fathers on the road and helped with cooking and cleaning.

For some 40 years, it hung in Hernstadt’s bedroom on the Upper East Side. Though many curators visited and found other treasures in her collection, that specific sketch did not resonate much until Matthew Skic came by last August — his jaw dropped the moment he laid eyes on it.

The curator of exhibitions at the Museum of the American Revolution, Skic immediately recognized the garment worn by one soldier as an American hunting shirt, a distinctive clue supporting the inscription. If authentic, the sketch would be only the second known depiction of women camp followers, and the first showing Continental troops from North Carolina.

“Alarm bells were just going off in my head — this is incredible,” Skic said. “There were just a lot of ideas circling in my head, that this is indeed real, this is indeed, probably, an eyewitness sketch, just who was the artist?”

Hernstadt, energized by Skic’s enthusiasm, allowed the curator to take the work to Philadelphia, where he consulted a handful of experts to investigate the artist and confirm that the sketch was legitimate. Within weeks, he examined it with Philadelphia paper conservator Corine McHugh, who agreed that the ink, paper, and handwriting aligned with the Revolutionary War period. He tracked down newspaper articles that placed the North Carolina Brigade in Philadelphia on Aug. 25, 1777, on its way to meet George Washington’s army to fight in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown that fall.

Using handwriting analysis and comparisons to other works, Skic, his coworkers at the museum, and other art experts confirmed the artist was Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, a Swiss artist who moved to Philadelphia in 1774 and often drew scenes from the American Revolution.