A rare portrait of John Barry, the Wexford man known as the ‘Father of the American Navy’ recently went on the market, but it doesn’t look like the valuable painting will be hanging at the Naval Academy – or anywhere in his native county.
The circa 1801 portrait by Gilbert Stuart had been held by Barry’s descendants for most of its existence, but now it is being offered for sale by a New York art dealer for $300,000.
‘We don’t have an acquisition budget,’ said James Cheevers, Art Curator at the United States Naval Academy Museum. ‘If someone would like to donate it, we’d be delighted to accept it – it is a pretty significant work.’
‘We don’t have a contemporaneous portrait done during Barry’s lifetime and Gilbert Stuart was the Rembrandt of American portraiture,’ added Mr. Cheevers. He said the Naval Academy has a handful of items relating to Barry.
These include some engraved prints of Barry and a sculptured bust, plus a portrait that was done nearly 90 years after the great sailor’s death. It also has a wine decanter set that reputedly belonged to Barry.
The price tag also puts the portrait out of Wexford County Council’s reach. A native of Tacumshane, Barry is one of Wexford’s most famous sons and after getting his start aboard merchant vessels later became known as the ‘Father of the American Navy’ following his famed exploits during the American Revolution. He died of asthma in 1803, at the age of 58.
A spokesperson for the Arts Department in Wexford County Council said the price tag put it well outside their budget for the public art collection and that an item like that would have to be bought by the Council as a whole – a rather unlikely event in the current economic climate.
The oil painting of Barry is about 29 by 24 inches and shows a threequarter bust. His uniform is blue with buff lapels and a high collar, and his shoulders bear gold epaulets.
Barry emigrated to, and settled in, Philadelphia, and Bruce Gimelson, the New York dealer who is offering the painting, said that Independence Hall in that city has expressed an interest in purchasing the painting. ‘It is a beauty, it was definitely done for the (Barry) family,’ Mr. Gimelson said. ‘It definitely belongs in a great institution like the Naval Academy or in the National Portrait Gallery or Independence Hall.’
Images and text by The Wexford People, Ireland