Tonti of the Iron Hand

The story of how a prized portrait finally and fittingly made it to Mobile is as fascinating as the subject himself.

Of the 117,000 objects in the History Museum of Mobile’s collection, the most prized portrait depicts French explorer Henri de Tonti (about 1650 – 1704) and his iron hand.

Italian born, de Tonti spent his career in service to the French crown and was instrumental in the success of better-known explorers like La Salle, d’Iberville and Bienville, who sought and established settlements along the Gulf Coast. Working from Mobile to Canada, de Tonti built ships, constructed forts, negotiated with Native Americans and survived gruesome injuries. Falling victim to Mobile’s first yellow fever epidemic, de Tonti died in 1704 and was buried at Old Mobile. Even into the 20th century, de Tonti remained popular enough to star in romance novels. 

The fame of the artist who created the portrait might surpass even that of his subject: The portrait is attributed to Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes, who was Rembrandt’s star pupil and, upon Rembrandt’s death, the most celebrated portraitist in late 17th-century Amsterdam. Portraiture, at this point in time, was less about representing a subject’s physical likeness and more about conveying an ideal self. Subjects were encouraged to picture themselves as they wanted to be seen and then to model their behavior to match the image.

Dutch Painter Nicolaes Maes Portrays Henri de Tonti

De Tonti’s posture is meant to communicate both the worldliness and restraint prized by his peers. Like Rembrandt, Maes paints his subject with a cool correctness, appropriately distant, but also with a direct gaze that engages the viewer.

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Although previously thought to signify an order of chivalry, these shoulder ribbons, new research suggests, were a fashion statement, popularized for a few decades by aristocratic men at Louis XIV’s Versailles.

Certain gestures were considered refined, conforming to a code of civility and connoting education and wealth. Dutch painters consulted manuals of elegant gestures, which recommended that spread fingers would signal good breeding.

Patterns of tiny cracks, called craquelure, are normal in an oil painting of this age, and tracing the web of fine lines can help determine if parts have been overpainted. There is no craquelure in the left background of the painting, including the stone wall, which suggests it was touched up in a restoration.

Depending on the date of the painting, the ships in the background are either a generic reference to his career in the French navy or a nod to his shipbuilding on the Great Lakes.

Like fellow Dutch artist Anthony Van Dyck, Maes paints his subject sharply from below to enhance de Tonti’s stature.

Physical Imperfections
It’s curious that de Tonti gestures towards the missing hand, but then that iron hand is marginalized and hidden in shadow. Dutch painters and their subjects frequently obscured any deformity or physical imperfection, believing they detracted from the ideal image of self. In this case, though, the missing appendage is important in recognizing “Tonti of the Iron Hand,” so we are seeing a tension between identifying and downplaying the prosthetic hand.

Reverse Image?
Most sources say de Tonti lost his right hand on a campaign in Sicily in the 1660s. If that’s true, the portrait’s missing left hand might be explained by the use of a camera obscura (a pinhole camera). We know optical experiments were popular among 17th-century Dutch artists, and if Maes was working from a sketch of de Tonti, the pinhole camera would reverse the image.*

How it Came to Mobile

A dive deep into the archives of the History Museum of Mobile uncovers the unlikely story of the 44 years and over 175 people it took to bring the portrait to Mobile.

For centuries, “Tonti of the Iron Hand” was unknown, tucked away in the private collection of the English Maryon-Daulby family. Fate intervened in 1930, when native Mobilian and art appraiser Herndon Smith befriended the owner in New York City, learned of the portrait and arranged for it to be exhibited at the Mobile Public Library in 1931. Efforts to purchase the portrait for the city were short-lived in Depression-era Mobile, but the owner, Edward Maryon-Daulby, wrote again in 1945 to offer the painting to the city for the second time.

Having lost some of his fortune in World War II, Maryon-Daulby appealed to Mobilians’ civic pride, writing in a rather zealous letter that “if there is one spot on Earth where, above all others, this portrait belongs, it is where Chevalier de Tonty (sic) made his last stand, created the foundations of your city, died, and was buried there!” A second attempt to muster $20,000 to buy the portrait in 1947 was again unsuccessful, which the eccentric Englishman took as a personal insult. The following year, he sold the portrait at auction in New York City.

Unbeknownst to anyone in Mobile, however, the new owner’s will granted the City of Mobile first right of refusal to the portrait. In January 1974, the portrait of Henri de Tonti travelled once again to Mobile, and the Museum of the City of Mobile (as the History Museum was then called) launched a public subscription to raise the $10,000 then being asked for the oil painting. This time, Mobile rallied to the cause. Donations poured in over the next six months from almost 200 citizens — five dollars, 10 dollars, 25 dollars at a time — until the full sum was reached. Today, the portrait is on permanent display at the History Museum of Mobile, living a couple dozen miles from the place de Tonti died.

Meg McCrummen Fowler is director of the History Museum of Mobile. She earned her M.A. in History of Art at Tulane University, where she is currently completing a Ph.D. in Art History & Society.

*Thanks to Dr. Rebecca Williams, owner of Iron Hand Brewing, for this insight.

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