This painting (likely a self-portrait) by John Mare would have been done during the time when there were many people throughout the American Colonies who still had a close association with England. As an ardent member of the Masonic order, Mare originally included the Masonic symbol of the Premiere Grand Lodge from the Free Mason's Society in England in the upper right of his painting. At that time all Lodges in the Colonies derived their charter from the Grand Lodges in England.
When Mare, as a fervent patriot, wished to disassociate himself from England he painted over the British Masonic symbol in this artwork. Despite cutting his ties to the English branch of the Masonic Lodge, Mare did continue throughout the rest of his life to be an active Mason. He was quite proud of helping to reorganize the Unanimity Lodge in Edenton, North Carolina in the late 1780s.
Early in the 1960s, when this painting was acquired by its current owners, there was no visible evidence of over-paint. At a later date the artwork was sent to a leading conservator for a light cleaning, and removal of the old varnish. During this process the conservator discovered, and then uncovered, the original Masonic Premiere Grand Lodge coat of arms for the Free Mason's Society.
There is perhaps no other painting in America from the Revolutionary War period where an artist and patriot was able to demonstrate his commitment to American Independence by obscuring the symbol of his former association with Great Britain.
John Mare is sometimes referred to as a trompe l'oeil (to trick the eye) painter. This comes from a portrait in the New York Historical Society where Mare depicts John Keteltas (1739-1766), with a small housefly on his cuff.
In a letter dated April 4, 1978 art historian Helen Burr Smith wrote to Joe Caldwell:
Dear Mr. Caldwell,
Having personally examined your painting of The Man in Blue displaying the Masonic emblems, I feel there is no question that it is by the hand of John Mare.
I feel that it is one of the finest examples of his work. Next to the painting of Jeremiah Platt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is the second largest original painting by Mare known.
I will continue to work on the identification of the sitter with the possibility of the painting being a self portrait remaining.
Helen Burr Smith
Helen Burr Smith (1918-1980) was a noted authority on Colonial American silversmiths and portrait painters.
"No matter how dependent [Mare] was on a set formula for composition, he painted faces with individuality. It is honest work, straightforward, unstained by flattery. Portraits of real persons and irrefutable proof of his professional success."
–Helen Burr Smith and Elizabeth V. Moore, "John Mare: A Composite Portrait"
Once a member of the Free Mason's Society in England, Mare obscured the large British Masonic symbol in this likely self-portrait to demonstrate his commitment to America's Independence.