Who was Paine? Depending on whom you ask, he was either an uncompromising free-thinker who made possible the popular embrace of the Declaration of Independence, or "a filthy little atheist," as Teddy Roosevelt once described him. A seditious subject of the English crown or an honorary French citizen chucked in the Bastille. Or just a fiercely American idealist with too much interest in brandy and democracy and not enough in fashion or personal hygiene.
The painting, a bust circa 1792 by Laurent Dabos of Toulouse, seems to have been lost until only a few years ago, when it surfaced in England. It's a flattering portrait, but—not surprisingly, perhaps—on the back of the canvas an anonymous hand appears to have scribbled something of an insult to Paine.
Paine had enormous power with words, Ms. Vickers says, "a power that he himself probably didn't understand. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington made sure Paine kept writing to rouse public sentiment and support. If Washington thought him important, we should, too."