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Dunsmore’s restored American Revolution paintings on display

People look at an exhibition of John Ward

People look at an exhibition of John Ward Dunsmore paintings at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. The 20th century painter's work is famous for its depiction of scenes from the Revolutionary War. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

A collection of American Revolution oil paintings created by John Ward Dunsmore that were found in an unused bathroom in lower Manhattan have been restored and are on exhibition — just in time for the Fourth of July.

Discovered about 10 years ago in Fraunces Tavern Museum — a landmarked 1719 building — the 47 Dunsmore paintings are back to their colorful splendor and can be seen at the museum’s gallery at 54 Pearl St.

“When we were kids these were the first visions we saw in our history textbooks that told us the stories of the American Revolution,” said James Grayshaw, general vice president of the Sons of the Revolution, which established the Fraunces Tavern Museum in 1907.

Dunsmore’s 20th century work stood out for its accurate portrayal of the revolution and Colonial life. He meticulously researched historic documents and collected antiques, which he kept at his Fifth Avenue studio. There he hired actors to pose for his recreations such as when Betsy Ross presented the first Stars and Stripes to George Washington.

Dunsmore’s pastel-colored oil paintings of bright reds and blues capture the regal military riding capes of George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge in a backdrop of a snowdrift forest where soldiers huddle over open fires to keep warm.

“Look at the bright light that shines over Washington’s maps,” said Jessica Baldwin Phillips, executive director at the museum. In the painting one sees a determined general “facing a David and Goliath challenge,” she said at the exhibition’s opening last week.

Dunsmore also illustrates the more personal emotional moments of the American Revolution. Using light rustic gold colors, lavender, green and white, Dunsmore shows off his classical fine art training in paintings that depict the gentle, domestic life of George Washington and the Colonial life of the average patriot.

The “Spirit of ’76” painting depicts the moments before a young man leaves home to fight in the war. A young woman weeps into a wooden table, while an older woman offers a supportive hand to the musket-carrying patriot.

Sons of the Revolution member Ken Chase donated money to refurbish the artwork. He said he reveled in his family lineage that traces to Beverly Chase, who danced with Lafayette in Charlestown. “We easily forget the history of our founders. It’s important that we learn about them and be proud.”

“Most people in America stop learning about the American Revolution after the eighth grade unless you go on to college. But even then we never really examine the stories unless you are willing to read about them and go beyond that George Washington had wooden teeth,” Grayshaw said.

Dunsmore grew up hearing the family’s patriotic stories, including about his great-grandfather who was a Continental soldier. In the 1870s, Dunsmore attended the Petite Ecole in Paris, where he learned to paint in the classical style of fine art using accurate lines for detail that were useful in bringing back to life the historic events of the American Revolution, said Alexander Katlan, who restored the paintings.

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