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The Green Tree: Highlights from the Collection of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia - April 2007
 
 
Introduction
 
The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Homes from Loss by Fire was founded shortly after the end of the American Revolution in 1784 by members of the Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire and others who were dissatisfied by that company’s refusal to insure houses with trees on their street façades. The new company insured homes fronted by carefully pruned trees and adopted the image of a green tree as its corporate emblem and fire mark. The company, which came to be known simply as “The Green Tree,” greatly expanded its policyholder base and prospered, and in 1812 purchased its first office on 54 Walnut Street.

The company’s trustees began to acquire portraits in 1815, when they commissioned the local artist Bass Otis to paint a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s Athenaeum portrait of George Washington. A major event took place in 1839, when the trustees commissioned John Neagle to paint a portrait of the sixth chairman of their board of directors, James Cowles Fisher, thereby initiating a corporate tradition that lasted well into the twentieth century. It may seem unlikely that a group of conservative insurance executives would be sensitive to art and aesthetics, but from the outset they possessed an uncanny knack for choosing the most appropriate portraitist for a given chairman. Neagle characteristically produced a straightforward image of the philanthropic, kindly businessman Fisher; Thomas Eakins was selected, despite his reputation for controversy, to paint posthumous portraits of the military hero and entrepreneur George Cadwalader; complicated arrangements were made so that John Singer Sargent could paint the accomplished cosmopolite Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell while visiting the United States from London. The Green Tree executives had Cecilia Beaux paint a progressive, impressionist-style portrait of the businessman and amateur photographer J. Dickinson Sergeant; they selected William Merritt Chase to paint the good-natured raconteur Henry Williams Biddle; and, perhaps most surprising of all, they granted Alexander Cassatt’s request to have his likeness painted by Philip Pearlstein. Other, lesser known artists the trustees patronized whose works are not included in this catalogue were G. P. A. Healy, Adolphe Borie, Leopold Seyffert, and others.

The trustees also occasionally collected portraits of famous Americans. In 1876 they acquired one of Joseph Siffred Duplessis’s likenesses of Benjamin Franklin (deaccessioned); in 1932, one of Rembrandt Peale’s late portraits of George Washington; and in 1934 Bass Otis’s portrait of the Philadelphia physician Caspar Wistar.

The Mutual Assurance Company also amassed a wide range of items related to era of volunteer firefighting companies. The most important among these include rare nineteenth-century fire engine models, one of which was made in Lancaster by two sons of the noted portraitist Jacob Eichholz; an engine panel decorated by John A. Woodside; a hand-painted bronze figure of a fireman made by the Philadelphia firm Cornelius & Baker; articles of firemen’s clothing, such as parade hats, helmets, and belts; a group of hand-sewn leather fire buckets; an assortment of speaking horns, axes, spanners, wrenches, and a parade torch; numerous European and American fire marks dating from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries; and a complete set of six lithographs from Louis Maurer and Nathaniel Currier’s “Life of a Fireman” series.

Other significant objects from the collection that are not directly related to firefighting are some first-edition, hand-colored engravings from William Russell Birch’s City of Philadelphia (1800); examples of fine European and American silverware, including pieces by the Philadelphia silversmiths Richard Humphreys and Joseph Lownes; and an extremely rare gold medal commemorating the death of George Washington that was made by Jacob Perkins in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia’s collection was published by Anthony N. B. Garvan and Carol A. Wojtowicz, Catalogue of the Green Tree Collection (Philadelphia: Mutual Assurance Company, 1977), hereafter abbreviated as “Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977.” The present catalogue covers only the highlights of the collection, with particular emphasis on the most important portraits, which have more extensive discussions than any of the firefighting memorabilia, silver, prints, and so forth. In the portrait section I have expanded Garvan and Wojtowicz’s original text to reflect new scholarship over the last thirty years, as well as updating exhibition histories and bibliographic references. For the sake of practicality I have not footnoted every reference made to the conclusions they drew from their research; readers are referred to the “reference” section in the heading to each entry, which provides general citation to Garvan and Wojtowicz’s discussions of individual portraits and other objects. Carol Eaton Soltis contributed the two entries on Rembrandt Peale’s portraits of George Washington.

In the sections devoted to firefighting memorabilia, silver, and prints, with few exceptions I have provided only shortened versions of Garvan and Wojtowicz’s entries, which are again cited in the “references” section of each entry heading. Certain objects were not included in their collection catalogue because they were acquired after it was published in 1977. For these items, I wrote the entries based on information in the Mutual Assurance Company’s curatorial files. Unless otherwise specified, citations of letters, telegrams, board minutes, and so forth are from the Mutual Assurance Company’s archives. The Mutual Assurance Company’s collection accession numbers are enclosed within parentheses immediately after each plate number.

Some items from the Mutual Assurance Company collection that are being offered for sale were not included in this catalogue largely because they had no direct relevance to the history of firefighting. For an itemized list of these objects please refer to our Web site, http://www.schwarzgallery.com/.

Finally, I would like to thank Lys Ann Weiss for editing the catalogue.

—Robert W. Torchia


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