Artist Archibald Willard was born in Bedford, Ohio, in 1836. In 1855, he and his family moved to Wellington, Ohio, where Willard became an apprentice to E.S. Tripp. Tripp painted carriages and furniture. This experience provided Willard with his first formal training as an artist.
During the American Civil War, Willard enlisted in the 86th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He began to draw pictures of what he saw during the war and, in partnership with James F. Ryder, began to sell reproductions of his work. The two men continued their business connections after the war ended, and Willard was able to make a living from his art. He decided to go to New York, where he began to study art with Joseph Oriel Eaton.
In 1875, Willard moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he set up a studio. It was in Cleveland where Willard painted his most famous work, which he called Yankee Doodle. Eventually, this painting became known as The Spirit of '76. The painting's subject was the American Revolution. Willard completed the painting in time for it to be displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Although art critics were harshly critical of the painting, it was extremely popular with most Americans who saw it. Ryder produced many reproductive images to sell to the public, and Willard painted a number of different versions of the painting during the remainder of his life. The artist died in 1918.