This portrait depicts the American naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry (1785 – 1819), popularly known as the Hero of Lake Erie, for his role in achieving a decisive victory against the British at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The battle, fought on September 10, 1813, off the coast of Ohio, resulted in the capture of six British ships and ensured American control of the lake for the remainder of the war. After the battle, Perry wrote to General William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841), later ninth president of the United States, informing him of the victory with the now famous words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
This portrait of Perry was painted by Jane Stuart, the youngest daughter of Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828), who is perhaps best known for his portraits of George Washington. It is based upon an earlier bust-length version (1818-28, Toledo Museum of Art), which was begun by the elder Stuart and completed by Jane after his death. Both artist and subject were native Rhode Islanders and the portrait was one of nine portraits of the distinguished men of Rhode Island presented to Brown University on August 21, 1857.
In the portrait, Perry wears the insignia badge of the Society of the Cincinnati—commonly called the eagle—suspended from a light blue ribbon trimmed in white protruding from his coat. Founded in 1783, the Society originally consisted of American and French officers who had served in the Revolutionary War, with membership subsequently passed down through their direct male descendants. Although Perry’s father had served as a midshipman during the Revolution, his service was too brief to qualify him for membership. Following his brilliant victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry was made an honorary member of the Society in New York.