Frederick James : Mischianza
Frederick James (Mischianza)

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Artist: Frederick James
Title: Mischianza
Media: Oil on canvas, 35 x 49 1/4 inches
Provenance: The Rittenhouse Club, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia; Schwarz Gallery by 1992; Pennsylvania private collection until 2003
Description: Signed, dated, and inscribed at lower left: “FRED JAMES/Philada 1881”

The word mischianza, or meschianza, is derived from the conflation of the Italian words mescere (to mix) and mischiare (to mingle). The Mischianza was a medley of events held at Walnut Grove in Philadelphia on May 18, 1778, to celebrate the departure of General William Howe, commander- in-chief of the British army in Philadelphia, for his native England. Howe’s officers each contributed 140 pounds to pay for the affair, which included a procession of decorated boats that advanced up the Delaware River and docked near Green Street Wharf, a jousting tournament on a nearby green, an elaborate banquet, dancing, and a colorful display of fireworks. Each guest received an elaborate invitation featuring the Howe family crest and a sun setting into the sea that was mounted with a streamer bearing the motto Luceo Discendens, Aucto Splendore Resurgam (“He is shining as he sets, but he shall rise again in great splendor”).

James’s painting depicts a group of men, dressed as knights, departing for the Mischianza. Captain John Andre was one of four officers selected to manage the entertainment. In his account of the event, seven young American women were chosen to be the knights’ ladies: “They wore gauze Turbans spangled and edged with gold and Silver, on the right Side a veil of the same kind hung as low as the waist and the left side of the Turban was enriched with pearl and tassels of gold or Silver and crested with a feather.” Their dresses were of white silk with long sleeves and sashes tied in large bows on the left, “trimmed, spangled, and fringed according to the Colours of the Knight.” The knights'’garb was the same as “that worn in the days of Henry the 4th of France”: a white satin vest; full pink sleeves with straps of white satin laced with silver and edged in black; a large pink scarf fastened on the right shoulder with a white bow across the chest; a pink and white sword belt, also laced with silver and black; and a white satin hat ornamented with red, white, and black plumes. To joust against these seven white knights were seven black knights, dressed in black satin with orange and gold trimmings.1

One month after the Mischianza, the Americans marched in and reclaimed Philadelphia, leaving the British “knights” barely time to escape. Later, when the American officers under George Washington's command had a ball in honor of the French officers who had aided them, the American ladies who had attended the Mischianza were at first denied invitations. They were eventually included, although hesitantly, and the memory of the event lasted for many years.

The house shown in this painting is known as John Wister’s Grumblethorpe. Built in 1744, Grumblethorpe is located at 5267 Germantown Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Originally intended to serve as a summer home, it eventually became Wister’s primary residence and was referred to for many years as “Wister's Big House.” During the Revolution, while the British occupied Philadelphia under Howe, General James Agnew had his headquarters for a time at Grumblethorpe, which he may have chosen for its prominence and the fact that it was easily identifiable. James's choice of Wister’s house for his painting of the Mischianza may be based on this historical fact.

In 1808 the main house underwent many changes, chief of which was the removal of the balcony on the second-floor street side and the substitution of the Federal-style doorway seen in this painting for the original. Charles Jones Wister, Jr., who wrote a two-volume history of Grumblethorpe, disliked the additions and would not allow any artist to paint the Federal facade as shown in James’s painting, but supplied a model of the early facade to those depicting it. No major changes have been made since 1819. In the 1940s G. Edwin Brumbaugh restored some of the rooms to their original eighteenth-century design and the Federal doorway was removed and restored to its original style. Grumblethorpe, which is now maintained as a museum by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, is one of the most important Colonial houses in Germantown, not only because of the eminence of the Wister family, but also because it represents the final stage in the development of Germantown domestic architecture.

John Wister (born 1708) immigrated to Philadelphia from Heidelberg, Germany in 1727 to join his brother, Casper, who had arrived ten years earlier. He was a merchant who chiefly imported wine from Germany. His residence was located on Market Street between Third and Fourth Streets before he settled permanently at Grumblethorpe. As legend has it, Benjamin Franklin erected his first lightning rod on his Market Street house. Charles Jones Wister, Sr. (1782-1865) lived in his grandfather’s house and joined the mercantile trade with his older brother, John. He was considered the most important botanist in Philadelphia of his time.

1. John W. Jackson, With the British Army in Philadelphia: 1777-1778 (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1979), pp. 240-42.

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Inventory: RS 4064
Category: •cityscape•Philadelphia•a:Philadelphia•nineteenth century•a:American•a:pennsylvania•Colonial Revival•
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