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Spotlight on a "revolutionary" Rutgers alum: Simeon De Witt exhibition at the Zimmerli
Simeon De Witt, Ezra Ames, 1804. Oil on canvas. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Gift of the grandchildren of Simeon De Witt. Photo: Jack Abraham.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ.- When General George Washington led troops into colonial New Jersey during the early months of the Revolutionary War, he did not have access to an app – or even adequate drawings on paper – to guide him across the region. But in 1776, Simeon De Witt (1756-1834), the sole graduate that year from Rutgers (then known as Queen’s College), joined the Continental Army to fight the British. As a signature project of Rutgers 250, the year-long celebration of the university’s founding in 1766, the Zimmerli Art Museum presents Simeon De Witt: Mapping a Revolution, on view through July 31, 2016. The exhibition honors De Witt’s crucial role during the Revolutionary War and, throughout the rest of his life, documenting the geography of New York State (he was a native of Ulster County). It also explores the practice of 18th-century cartography through his original maps and tools.

“As we get ready to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Rutgers in 2016, this exhibition reminds us of the important role that New Jersey and its citizens played in the colonies’ efforts to win their independence and form a new democracy,” observed Jenevieve DeLosSantos, who organized the exhibition while working as a graduate curatorial assistant at the Zimmerli and recently received her PhD in Art History from Rutgers. By 1780, De Witt was named surveyor general and sketched maps of New Jersey’s uncharted land, working directly under George Washington. His topographic renderings were a valuable resource to the Commander-in-Chief as he navigated the terrain and evaded British forces.

After the successful conclusion of the war, De Witt built a career with accomplishments that aided new Americans who were instrumental in the early stages of westward expansion. In 1784, De Witt was appointed Surveyor General of the State of New York, a post he held for 50 years. In 1802, he drafted the first large-scale map of the state to be printed. It was the most detailed to date – depicting newly established cities, towns, and county lines – and distributed to salons and offices as an accurate reference of the Empire State’s geography. An 1804 version of this map is on view, on loan from Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University Libraries. The map is accompanied by several of De Witt’s original drafting tools, on loan from the Albany Institute of History and Art, and a field compass commonly used during the era, also from Special Collections. These historical objects provide insight into the resources available to De Witt at the time.

The Zimmerli’s 1804 three-quarter length portrait of De Witt in a stately interior captures him in the prime of his life. He thoughtfully gazes beyond the frame of the image, surrounded by the tools of his profession: a telescope, a globe. De Witt’s hand rests on a table, with the top portion of the aforementioned map of New York State visible. That it was painted by the prominent portrait artist Ezra Ames (1768-1836), who lived in Albany, New York, indicates De Witt’s status as an accomplished and respected member of society. More than 700 portraits have been attributed to Ames; among them, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the first governor of New York, George Clinton.

The selection includes other items that indicate the popularity of Revolution-era subjects in fine art and popular culture during the nation’s early decades. The Zimmerli’s recently cleaned and conserved portrait of George Washington was painted by Jane Stuart around 1840. The daughter of the renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart, she opened her own studio after his death in 1828 and sold her work; especially popular were replicas of her father's portrait of the country’s first president. Also on view are prints that depict important battles in New Jersey during America’s War for Independence, including a map by English engraver William Faden that depicts the positions of Washington’s troops in New Jersey and PA at the beginning of the war.

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