A Hereditary Member of the Society of the Cincinnati
In July 2009, the Society acquired a striking portrait of a nineteenth-century gentleman wearing a Society of the Cincinnati Eagle insignia, a generous gift from Dr. and Mrs. William R. Baker of York, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Baker reported that her mother purchased the portrait from a local antiques dealer and regularly regaled family and friends by pointing out the well-executed Eagle suspended from the man's left lapel, but she did not know who the man was. With only the inscription "JSC age 34, Philad." on the reverse of the wood panel as a clue, Society staff identified the sitter as James St. Clair Caldwell (1791-1853), a Philadelphia native who was thirty-four years old when he became a member of the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania in 1826—and was perhaps eager to show off his insignia.
The bust-length portrait of James St. Clair Caldwell shows a distinguished-looking man in civilian dress and a casual hairstyle appropriate for the early nineteenth century. Although the oil-on-wood panel painting was in relatively good condition, several layers of dirt and grime underneath and between multiple layers of discolored varnish had considerably darkened the picture. Paintings conservator Patricia Favero undertook conservation treatment, generously funded by the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, in late 2009 to clean the painting, consolidate small areas of fractured paint, and remove and retouch areas of old repairs. The cleaning process even revealed areas around the left lapel and in the lower right corner left unfinished by the artist where only the original gray primer is visible. The wood panel itself is slightly irregular with curious but stable cracking on the left side of the painting caused by a natural knot in the wood. Lastly, the painting was given a fresh application of natural resin varnish to achieve a look which more closely resembles its original appearance and preserves the surface for future admirers.
James St. Clair Caldwell was born in December 1791 in Philadelphia to Andrew and Elizabeth (Barker) Caldwell. Andrew Caldwell, a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati, attaining the rank of second lieutenant in April 1777 with Col. Benjamin Flowers' Corps of Artillery before resigning in July 1779. He later joined the Hospital Department and was commissioned a surgeon's mate in the Continental Army in June 1780, a position he held until the end of the war. After the Revolutionary War, Andrew Caldwell settled in New York City, where he was a drug merchant. He died in New York in March 1797, when his son James was just five years old.
Like his father, James St. Clair Caldwell studied medicine. Although few details have been uncovered about his life, he is sometimes referred to as Dr. James St. Clair Caldwell in historical sources and was among Philadelphia's wealthy elite. In May 1818, he married Maria Howell, with whom he had five children. Caldwell died at his residence at 164 North Ninth Street in Philadelphia in January 1853. The portrait of Caldwell preserved in the Society's collections is likely the only contemporary image of him that survives and now details the man and his Society insignia as clearly as it did when it was first painted.