Analysis: Patriotic art no mere flagwaving

By ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Senior Writer  |  July 7, 2003 at 12:58 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 7 (UPI) -- If it's high season for patriotic holidays, that must be George Washington's portrait hanging on the wall --in fact, lots of them in several of the country's leading museums and art institutions.

In the National Gallery of Art in the nation's capital it's Jean-Antoine Houdon's bust of Washington created in the first flush of post-revolutionary euphoria; at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts it's Gilbert Stuart's heroic rendering of the general in action at Dorchester Heights, south of Boston. The picture can be seen in a new gallery, "Arts of the Colonial Americas," celebrating that city's place at the heart of the nation's history.

At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia there's a unique "George Washington: Picturing a Legend" exhibition of paintings and works on paper tracing Washington's iconography from Charles Willson Peale's famous military portrait to present day works. The exhibition shows how the American perception of Washington evolved into a cult during his lifetime.

Washington is shown as a soldier, statesman, family man, and eventually, in Rembrandt Peale's 1824 Patria Pater painting, achieves near-deity form. Portraits of George Washington become the benchmarks against which to measure patriotism, military heroism, and model citizenship from the 18th century to the present day.

Washington's a hard act to follow, but American patriotic art has found new ways to express itself in peacetime as well as at war. Alfred Jacob Miller's "The Bombardment of Fort McHenry" recalled the battle that gave this country its National Anthem. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a group of American artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Jamie Wyeth, John Alexander, and Roy Lichtenstein contributed works to a traveling exhibition organized by Meridian House, a Washington think tank, to tour Europe and the Middle East. The show,"True Colors: Meditation on the American Spirit," opened overseas in Istanbul, Turkey. On Sept 11, 2003, it is scheduled to be in Berlin.

"After 9/11 Americans looked at the culture they had produced, and they looked at other cultures," says curator Elliot Bostwick Davis of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who created the new Colonial Americas gallery. "In times of crisis you want to look inward." There is where you find the strength to face the problems that confront us, the curator says.

Davis points out that Marsden Hartley's 1942 portrait of Abraham Lincoln, "The Great, Good Man," reflected a revival of interest in Lincoln when Americans were anxiously following the war in Europe -- just as they had anxiously watched their nation being drawn into the Civil War.

Inevitably, World War II broadened the scope for patriotic art, with poster artists like Norman Rockwell producing unforgettable images such as his visual renditions of Franklin Roosevelts Four Freedoms. Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" poster, showing three generations of an American family cheerfully sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner, seems as vivid today as it was when it was first produced in 1943. It also produced a generation of young artists who, every week in Life magazine painted scenes of the war and America's involvement in it.

A couple of years ago, the Tate Gallery in London mounted an exhibition of American artists of the Hudson Valley School -- the 19th century landscape artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Francis Cropsey, whose massive works gave East Coast urban Americans their first glimpses of the grandeur of the great wilderness of the west.

In Church's "Our Banner in the Sky," Church turns a night landscape into a symbolic flag. And that too, is patriotic art.

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