In the nineteenth century, volunteer fire companies often commissioned paintings to decorate their hand-pumped fire engines for parades, competitions, and community events. Sometimes framed with elaborate carvings, they adorned the tall air chamber located at the middle or rear of a pumper. The paintings would often feature patriotic, heroic, or allegorical images to associate the volunteer companies with these lofty ideals.
This fire engine panel painting likely came from the Aetna Fire Engine Company No. 16 of New York City that was active from 1786 to 1833. The painting is attributed to Thomas Sully and dates to around 1832. This painting takes after Edward Savages’ Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth: Giving Support to the Bald Eagle , a popular image of the period. The image parallels the mythological figure of Hebe, cupbearer to the gods of classical Greece, bringing them ambrosia and the nectar of immortal youth. It depicts a figure of Liberty pouring a bowl of ambrosia for an American bald eagle, granting it the immortality of the gods. Neo-classical themes on panel paintings linked the new nation to the ancient ideals of liberty, democracy and prosperity. They also allowed the volunteer companies to display paintings of an idealized female form, an image that was sure to be eye-catching during parades.