Portrait of Humphry Marshall

     This painting portrays a physically powerful man in the prime of life. With his rough hands, rumpled shirt, unbuttoned cuffs, and simple clothes, he will spend his day hard at work caring for his farm animals, working fields of wheat and rye and developing the first botanical garden and international commercial plant nursery in Chester County. But in the dawn light he indulges himself with an hour at the microscope, newly arrived from London, sent by his friend Benjamin Franklin (the original is in a case in front of the painting). He is examining immature maple leaves and seeds and will add them to his herbarium, two volumes of which are at his feet. Humphry is at home in the second story observatory he designed and built.  Surrounded by astronomical chart, telescope and “curiosities” and sitting in a yellow, ladderback rush seat chair, (in exhibit) his studies have been interrupted and Humphry sits up to address the viewer with a direct gaze.

     The limited pallet of primarily earth tones that cover most of the painting are vividly contrasted by the small, intense color splashes of the exotic insects, the bright red interior of the sea shell and the polished brass telescope. These are his treasures, his jewels, and the means by which his relatively circumscribed world, both physical and intellectual, is expanded into the universe of countless stars and planets and contracted to the heretofore unanticipated universe revealed through the microscope.

     Here he sits, stolid and determined, Humphry Marshall living on the verge of the frontier at the end of the age of reason and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As the man William Darlington described as being fifty years ahead of his time, Humphry more than lives up to the confident motto on the star chart hanging on the wall behind him, aut inveniam viam, aut faciam (I will find a way, or make one). His challenges, physical, ethical, spiritual, political and philosophical were at least the same as and perhaps beyond our own. He is an exemplar showing us what it means to be an American, always “being and becoming,” not without mistakes but ever optimistic that curiosity will always be an essential component of our humanity and national identity.