Painters and Patriotism, Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
PAINTERS AND PATRIOTISM, LATE EIGHTEENTH AND EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURIES
American art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was used as a didactic tool to celebrate the republican and patriotic ideals fostered by the American Revolution. The new values of the Revolution recalled the old virtues of ancient Greece and republican Rome, thus the artistic style that illustrated them to American audiences evoked the style of the classics in its abolishment of everything that was decorative and superfluous. This focus on the essential was what united the American Puritan tradition and the neoclassic style of the late eighteenth century. As art critic Robert Hughes claims in his 1997 book American Visions, "there was no real conflict between the values of American neoclassicism and those of the Puritan tradition; one flowed into the other, sharing a common radicalism."
Paradoxically, the painter who influenced this new direction of American art did not paint scenes of the American Revolution and spent the best part of his life in Europe under the patronage of George III. Benjamin West was the first American artist to combine a contemporary historical event with a neoclassical composition in his controversial The Death of General Wolfe (1770). It addresses the death of the British commander, Major General James Wolfe, while defeating the French army at the battle for Quebec in 1759. The painting is organized according to classical principles with the dying hero at its center looking skyward, thus prefiguring the ascension of Wolfe's soul and echoing scenes of Christ's deposition from the Cross. At the time, the painting caused heated debates in artistic circles, as many thought that historical painting required antique drapery rather than a detailed portrayal of modern uniforms and weaponry.
West's reply to these objections would influence a whole generation of American artists: "The event to be commemorated took place … in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costumes, any longer existed … The same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist … I want to mark the date, the place and the parties engaged in the event."
painters of the american revolution
John Singleton Copley applied West's intuition about historical painting to subjects taken from the American Revolution. Copley's portraits form a gallery of the men and women who contributed to the founding of the American republic. Hughes views Copley as the founder of that current of American empirical realism "which, disdaining frills of style and 'spiritual' grace notes, tried in all its sharpness and bluntness to engage the material world as an end in itself." Though Copley also painted many Tories of his native Boston and his own political allegiances are unknown, his paintings devoted to revolutionary personalities such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams have become fundamental statements about the American character.
Revere, a silversmith who warned the patriot troops at Lexington of the impending arrival of the British, is defined in Copley's portrait through his profession, as he is holding a silver teapot while three etching instruments are on the table. The painting, whose subject would also be featured in a work by the twentieth-century American regionalist painter Grant Wood, rejects any embellishment of the material world of Revere's profession. Thus, Hughes sees it as "a manifesto of democratic American pride in work. The radical as craftsman."
John Trumbull's political faith in the American Revolution has never been in doubt. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1789, Trumbull stated that his paintings were motivated by "the wish of commemorating the great events of our country's revolution." To Trumbull, the potentially frivolous profession of painter was given dignity by the task of preserving the memory of the greatest events and heroes in human history. This celebrative intent led Trumbull to plan a series of thirteen scenes from the American Revolution, of which he managed to complete eight. The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776 (1787–1820) with its from-life portraits of Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, is surely the best-known of the group and is based on a description of the Assembly Room in the Pennsylvania State House given by Jefferson. Trumbull also memorialized the events of the Revolution for the rotunda in the Capitol, focusing on The Declaration of Independence, the engraving of which established the reputation of Asher B. Durand; The Surrender of Burgoyne; The Surrender of Cornwallis; and The Resignation of Washington (1817–1824).
Other late eighteenth-century painters who used art as a patriotic tool were Charles Wilson Peale, who painted several events where Washington had been the hero; his son Rembrandt Peale, whose Porthole portrait of Washington contributed to the growth of the president's iconography; and Gilbert Stuart, whose unfinished head of Washington has attained iconic status. Washington was also the hero of William Trego's The March to Valley Forge (1883).
landscape painting and american values
Though concerned mostly with landscape painting, the Hudson River School, led initially by Thomas Cole and then by Asher Durand, contributed to the fostering of patriotic values as it established, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the myth of American wilderness. Active from the 1820s to the 1870s, the members of the school painted distinctively native landscapes, scenes not only of the Hudson River Valley but also of the American wilderness and of the West. Their paintings were part of the larger cultural trend of the nineteenth century, the exploration of nature in its mediating relationship between the human and the divine spheres. The paintings of the Hudson River School, particularly those by Thomas Cole, responded perfectly to the expectations of the rich New York Federalist families and their yearning for an idealized, purer America, unspoiled by the populism of Andrew Jackson's presidency. Cole's landscape paintings symbolize the dangers and the threats besieging Arcadian America, thus representing the anxiety over social and economic change shared by many of his patrons.
Cole's Arcadian landscapes were always beset by the storms of change (The Oxbow, 1836, being the clearest example) and they should therefore be set against the ambitious social reforms favored by Andrew Jackson's populist democracy. Cole's didactic and allegorical intent is apparent in The Course of the Empire (1834–1836), a series of five paintings commissioned by New York millionaire Luman Reed for the then enormous sum of $5,000. The Course of the Empire was an appeal for a return to the republican virtues of the forefathers who had been forsaken by Cole's generation. Set against the same natural backdrop (a natural harbor dominated by a rock, representing the endurance of nature and the caducity of human history), the cycle takes the viewer from The Savage State (1834) and The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1836), when humans were still honest and virtuous, to the corruption implied in Consummation (1836) and leading to the gloom of Destruction (1836) and Desolation (1836).
Though the subject matter changed over time, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the emergence of a distinctively American school of painting, in which historical events and natural scenery provided a constant source of patriotic inspiration for artists and their audiences.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.
Miles, Ellen Gross, ed. The Portrait in Eighteenth-Century America. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.
Novak, Barbara. Nature & Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Yaeger, Bert D. The Hudson River School: American Landscape Artists. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1996.