This bust of George Washington stands over the entrance to the vestry at the Old North Church, a historic landmark here in Boston which is best known for its involvement with the beginning of the American Revolution. The bust is a particular point of pride at a site that certainly isn’t short of fascinating and important features. It’s different from other depictions of Washington, more realistic and less idealized. The Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s wartime lieutenants, is said to have proclaimed, “Yes, that is the man I knew and more like him than any other portrait,” when he saw it as an old man in the 1820s.
So why am I writing about it in a theatre history blog?
I spent last summer working as an educator at the Old North Church, and I was told early on that the bust was probably (though not definitively) the work of Christian Gullager. Gullager’s not very well known, but he seems to have done alright for himself as a portrait painter in Boston, New York, and Philly at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th. The part that got my attention, however, was the fact that he was also a scenic designer. Boston’s early history doesn’t feature much theatre, since its founding fathers were vehemently opposed to it on religious and moral grounds (and really, who can blame them? we can be a bit much), so I was eager to find out more.
I finally got around to doing some quick research on Gullager, but a funny thing happened: the more I read about him, the murkier the details of his life seemed, and the more questions I had about him. For instance, all of the paintings that I’ve been able to find of his (the Worcester Art Museum has a good collection) are portraits, which wouldn’t seem to be an obvious qualification for someone who was being hired to paint scenery. He was born in Denmark and apparently was living in Boston by 1789 (according to this useful rundown of his life), and on November 9, 1793, he signed this contract, which is in the Boston Theatre (Federal Street) Records in the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection at the Boston Public Library:
The contract says that Gullager “will paint in a complete and handsome manner to the best of his skill eight scenes for the Boston Theatre.” The Boston Theatre was one of the first in the city, located on Federal Street. The eight scenes were mostly generic: there was to be a “back Street scene,” “one inside Palace scene,” “one forest scene,” “one cultivated Garden scene,” “one drawing room scene,” “one parlor with Library,” “one Sea view & rocks scene.” It makes sense that the scenes would be generic, since they cost a lot of money and would have to be reused over and over for the theatre to get its money’s worth. The only specific one was “one Front Street” scene, which is to say that the theatre wanted him to paint at least one scene that Bostonians would recognize as a unique depiction of their own city streets. Gullager was supposed to deliver at least four of the scenes by January 1, 1794, and he was supposed to get three more to the theatre for every two months until he was done. He’d get £45 for each one (that’s not a typo: I’m honestly not sure why they didn’t say dollars – was it a “it’s 17 years since independence and I’m still writing ‘pounds’ on all my checks!” kind of situation?), which was pretty good money – a reasonably well-off artisan like Paul Revere could expect to make about £80-85 a year in the colonial era, and he was comfortably upper-middle-class.
So no problem, right? Gullager was a painter, he was getting paid good money to do his job, and everything should have worked out. But it didn’t. The minutes for a meeting of the theatre’s trustees on February 21, 1795 include a motion that a few of those trustees form “a Committee to apply to Mr Gullager and know of him the reason why he has not compleated the Scenery for the Theatre agreeable to his Contract.” It sounds very dry and official, but anyone who’s ever had to go without a crucial element of the set for their show can understand the frustration that those trustees – to say nothing of the theatre’s other personnel – must have felt.
I have no idea why Gullager couldn’t get the job done on time. I’m sure there was a reason, but there are no surviving documents, no diaries or letters that can give us some insight into why this guy failed to live up to his contract. He must have gotten some of the scenes done, since an inventory of the Boston Theatre’s possessions from 1797 includes a “Front Street” scene, amongst other things (other scenes include the “Island of Barbadoes” – all of it, the whole island, I guess – and a “Gothick arch”).
He apparently continued to paint and get work in the Boston area until 1797, when his ads start appearing in New York City newspapers. A year later, he was in Philadelphia, where he’d live for a few years before bouncing back to New York and doing some more theatre scenes. He lived for a long time after that, but his wife divorced him in 1809, and he doesn’t really show up in the historical record until his death in Philadelphia in 1826 (all this is from the Worcester Art Museum‘s website). Just in case that didn’t make it hard enough to follow the rest of his life and career, somewhere along the line his family dropped the second “l”, so they appear in records in Philly as “Gulager.”
Here’s the kicker: we actually don’t have any hard evidence that he made the bust of Washington that got me started on this whole historical snipe hunt. We know that he made a bust of Washington: the Massachusetts Centinel of March 27, 1790 raves about “an elegant bust of THE PRESIDENT of the United States, in Plaister [plaster] of Paris,” and he painted a portrait of the man in 1789, which you can see here. But the Old North Church didn’t get this bust until 1815, and its records for that period of its history have been lost, so we don’t really know if this is Gullager’s work or someone else’s. The last person to write a study on Gullager points out that there was an Italian “stone-cutter” named Michael Gallego active in the United States at the time, and given that no one worried too much about spelling names consistently back then, this scholar thinks it’s completely plausible that it might have been Gallego instead (Christian Gullager: Portrait Painter to Federal America, Marvin S. Sadik, National Portrait Gallery, 1976). There’s no surviving report of Gullager ever doing a marble bust of Washington, so for all we know he might never have made one.
Where does all of this leave us? At first, I was interested in Gullager because he seemed like he might be a neat little footnote, an anecdote that I could bust out in conversation with my fellow nerds (you know who you are). But the more that I tried to find out about him, the more he came to serve as an example of how complicated and full of holes history really is. Looking at his career is a good reminder that we tend to like our history to be full of dramatic (no pun intended) successes and failures, featuring towering personalities, but that behind those big names are an endless number of mostly-forgotten individual lives, many of them nowhere near as successful or important.
Christian Gullager’s story is mostly one of mediocrity, obscurity, and failure. He had talent, sure, but he wasn’t a big-shot portrait painter on the level of Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portrait of Washington that’s become the iconic image of our first president (I mean, seriously, go back and compare the Gullager painting at the Massachusetts Historical Society with this). We’ll never be able to figure out exactly what was going on with his professional career or his personal life, but judging from the little evidence available, he wasn’t exactly “winning at life,” as the kids are saying these days. If we’re honest with ourselves, life parallels the Gullager story much more closely. There are always gaps in what we know about someone else’s experience, living or dead, and we’re always going to have to come up with stories and maybe-not-100%-true “facts” to paper over those holes in our understanding of other people.
Heavy stuff, huh? Need to shake that off a little? Here’s the inspiration for this post’s title, complete with lyrics so that you can sing along!