Gallery Profile: Fort Ticonderoga
There are redcoats in the parking lot on a recent afternoon at Fort Ticonderoga . A visit to the Revolutionary War site has always messed with your sense of past and present. But this summer, thanks to a new exhibit of the museum’s impressive art collection, the fort is blurring the line between historical artifact and art. And it’s worth another visit.
The museum has been collecting Ticonderoga-related works of art, along with the weapons and military artifacts most visitors expect to find, since the fort was restored and transformed into a museum in 1909. Some of it has been shown in exhibits before, but never all at once. The exhibit, which runs through October 20, is called “The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced Through the Eyes of America’s Great Artists.”
Curator of collections Chris Fox says the hope was to reach a new audience. “It was a great opportunity to tell the overall history of the site,” he says, “to give people that sense of place.”
It helps that the museum has a relatively new building in which to display it all. The Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center, which houses the gallery, was built in 2008 on the footprint of an old storehouse, part of the original fort. Here’s where a history refresher comes in handy.
The French built the original fort — they called it Fort Carillon — during the French and Indian War. Strategically, the location was prime real estate. Ticonderoga sits on a small peninsula at the southern end of Lake Champlain, several miles from the top of Lake George. When traveling by ship between New York City and Montréal, one encounters only two interruptions in the waterway. One is at the southern end of Lake George, Fox explains. “The other place is right here.” In both spots, crews had to portage their ships, rolling them over logs laid down between the two bodies of water. Whoever controlled Ticonderoga controlled the portage.
In 1758, when the British attacked the fort with 17,000 troops, they lost to France’s 3700. More than 2000 British men were killed that day. “It was a devastating defeat for the British,” says Fox. For the French, it was the greatest victory of the French and Indian War.
Still, by the time the British returned to Ticonderoga in 1759, the French were losing the war. The fort was hurting for troops and provisions; the plan was to evacuate. So when the British attacked, the French lit a fuse to their own powder magazine and destroyed the entire fort. “Around 11 p.m. on the 26th of July, 1759, was the last time this building stood,” says Fox.
The British rebuilt most of the fort — but not the storehouse — before Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen captured it in 1775, the first American victory in the Revolutionary War.
Organized into four sections, the exhibit tells the story of Ticonderoga, from the French and Indian War to the early-20th-century restoration. The first is a series of maps; the next, an exploration of the site’s military history. A 1760 portrait by Alan Ramsay depicts James Abercrombie, the major general of the British Army who led the disastrous attack on the French fort in 1758. “When Abercrombie was painted, it was two years after his major defeat,” says Fox. “I know the artist knew that.” The general offers a small, close-lipped smile. He looks uncomfortable in his red coat.
“I wanted to hang the portraits at eye level so you can almost look face-to-face with these leaders,” says Fox. Visitors can make eyes at a rosy-cheeked Col. Robert Knox in a painting by the well-known Revolutionary War portraitist Charles Wilson Peale. They can gaze into George Washington’s alarmingly pink face in a 1790 portrait by Peale’s nephew, Charles Peale Polk.
Amid the officer portraits are two examples of what Fox says is an often overlooked but “great American art form”: engraved powder horns. Soldiers would carve maps and illustrations into their horns, which in some cases have actually helped people such as Fox piece together the history of a place.
One of the horns on display belonged to Daniel Dwight, a surgeon in Gen. Phineas Lyman’s 1st Connecticut Provincial Regiment during the French and Indian War. Leafy ornamental detailing at both ends of the horn bookends a hand-carved map of Fort Ticonderoga. This includes a numbered key identifying important military structures, such as British siege works a half mile from the fort. There are also whimsical doodles of flocks of geese, small stands of leafless trees and the occasional fox.
The next section of the exhibit explores the fort’s 19th-century incarnation as one of the earliest American tourist attractions. After the Revolutionary War, Fox says, “The fort was very much in ruins and never used again.” But it quickly became a vacation destination.
The black-and-white photographs here look just like the touristy photos that could be found on someone’s Facebook page today — plus the outrageous hats and excessive pant pleating of the late 19th century. In one, a trio of men in bowler hats, three-piece suits and umbrellas pose as if they’ve just conquered the fort. In another, a young woman in a frilly blouse kicks up her leg as she points to the sign marking an important battle.
“A lot of people still had fathers and grandfathers who served there,” Fox says, so many visitors felt connected to the place emotionally. That nostalgia, combined with the dramatic views of the Adirondack landscape, says Fox, made the fort into a deep source of inspiration for artists.
The most famous of the artists represented in the exhibit is Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School American art movement. His 1826 painting “Gelyna, or a View Near Ticonderoga,” his earliest known signed and dated piece, depicts a fictionalized scene inspired by Gen. Abercrombie’s disastrous 1758 attack on Fort Carillon. In it, a British officer runs to the side of one of his soldiers, who lies dying alone on a rocky cliff. Above them, sunlight pierces storm clouds, tearing a hole through the dark to reveal the gleaming Adirondacks beyond. The men are as tiny as toy soldiers; the painting is all about the natural environs.
The exhibit’s final section tells the story of the fort’s restoration. Portraits of all the key players — Stephen Pell; his wife, Sarah; and her father, Robert Means Thompson — hang on the wall. Across from them is the exhibit’s biggest showstopper: a panoramic photograph of the fort from 1910, a year after restoration began.
For the 12th annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association that year, members boarded a steamship that stopped at several historic sites along Lake Champlain. One of them was Fort Ticonderoga.
In the photo, the historical association members mill about the rubble piles in their dark suits and buttoned-to-the-neck dresses. Some are schmoozing with Sarah Pell and her father, while a sheep idly sniffs the ground. Others pose precariously on tumbledown walls. In the foreground, another photographer adjusts his camera.
How strange to step outside the gallery into that same courtyard and find that not much has really changed.