Headless Horseman or the Witches’ Sabbath?
by Tracee Glab, FIA Curator of Collections and Exhibitions
It is not uncommon for art historians to discover that the current title of an artwork is different than what the artist originally intended, especially concerning objects almost two centuries old. Artists don’t often write titles on the back of a painting in the same way they might include a signature on the front, so what they originally intended to call a work can be lost to the passage of time. In the case of Thomas Chambers’s Old Sleepy Hollow Church in the FIA collection, sometime during its history it was given a different title than what the artist probably intended, but which nevertheless adds an intriguing aspect to the painting.
In Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter, 1808-1869 (Philadelphia Museum of Art exh. cat., 2008) Kathleen A. Foster suggests that the painting should be titled Old Sleepy Hollow Church [Alloway Kirk, with Burns’ Monument] and dates it ca. 1843–60. It is known that Chambers used reproductive prints as source material for many of his landscapes, and Foster matched up several of his works to the source print. In the case of the FIA painting, she traced it to J. T. Wilmore (after William H. Bartlett)’s etching of Alloway Kirk from William Beattie’s book Scotland Illustrated (1838). The church ruins (on the right) and Burns’ monument (on the left) are identical, although Chambers added more foliage to the scene so that the monument is almost obscured. Foster also notes that the FIA painting was listed in an 1845 auction (Newport, Rhode Island) as no. 6 “Alloway Kirk, with Burns’ Monument, moon rising.”
The painting was in the collection of Louis Lyons of Hudson River Valley, New York, when Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch bought it in 1949, about 100 years after it was created. At the time they acquired it, the work had the title: Old Sleepy Hollow Church. According to Foster, it would have been a logical mistake for a Hudson Valley collector to make several decades later, given the popularity of Washington Irving’s 1820 tale about Sleepy Hollow. The FIA’s explanation of the state of the church in the painting was that the Dutch Reformed Church burned down in 1837, so the artist chose to depict it in ruins when he created this painting circa 1850. However, given the level of accuracy Chambers uses in depicting the ruins of Alloway (versus a burned-out Dutch Reformed Church, the architecture of which is very different), it is more likely that he intended it to be illustrative of the Robert Burns’ 1790 poem “Tam o’Shanter.”
Riding home from the tavern, the poem’s hero Tam sees lights through the trees in the ruins of Alloway Kirk (dating to the 16th century in South Ayrshire, Scotland). He moves closer to investigate and finds, according to the poem:
Warlocks and Witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys and reels
Put life and mettle in their heels.
While Chambers’s painting does not show Tam or the witches’ sabbath taking place, his depiction of the graveyard at night with a full moon and shadows is certainly evocative of a spooky scene that has taken place there. Thus, it is not surprising that subsequent viewers saw in this painting the burial ground of the Hessian soldier, aka the Headless Horseman, who rides nightly seeking his head (and revenge).
It is also possible that Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch bought this painting specifically for this connection to Sleepy Hollow. In the separate but adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the Chrysler Mausoleum had already been built and in use with Bernice’s parents Della and Walter Chrysler interred there in 1938 and 1940, respectively. Eventually both Edgar and Bernice were interred in the mausoleum at Sleepy Hollow as well. (Other notable burials in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are Brooke Astor, Andrew Carnegie, William Rockefeller, and, of course, Washington Irving himself.)
The painting was given to the FIA in 1968 by the Garbisches because of Bernice’s family connection to Flint. Her family moved to Flint in 1912, where her father Walter later became head of Buick. They moved to New York in 1920, but Bernice never forgot about her time in Flint. After her marriage to Colonel Edgar William Garbisch, they began collecting American art, amassing 2,600 paintings, which were donated to twenty-three museums, including the FIA.
In order to honor the Chrysler-Garbisch history, the painting will continue to have the title of Old Sleepy Hollow Church along with the new title of Alloway Kirk with Burns’ Monument. What one sees in it—a Headless Horseman haunting or a Witches’ Sabbath about to take place—will be left up to the viewer.