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Art Exhibition Commemorates 225th Anniversary of the Battle of Brandywine


On September 11, 1777, on and near the banks of the Brandywine where the Brandywine River Museum now stands, the American army led by George Washington attempted to halt a larger force of British troops intent on capturing Philadelphia. By nightfall, the Americans were in retreat, and within two weeks the British occupied the capital. Yet the fierce battle, the deadliest to that date in the war for independence, metaphorically transformed the terrain, sanctifying the river and gently rolling farmland with the blood of patriotism.

A Brush with Conflict: The Battle of Brandywine in Art, an exhibition opening September 7, 2002 and continuing through November 24, 2002 at the Brandywine River Museum, presents images by artists of two centuries who found inspiration in the events, the landscape, and the personalities of the battle. Documents of history, such as informational broadsides, maps and engravings, are not found in this exhibition. Rather, A Brush with Conflict focuses on images that serve history as an ongoing process, images that reflect diverse aspects of our nation's cultural character. (left: N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), In A Dream I Meet General Washington,1930, Oil on Canvas, 32 1/4 x 47 1/4 inches, Collection of the Brandywine River Museum )

John Vanderlyn's (1775-1852) Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, lent by the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, Oklahoma, epitomizes the grand style of history painting prevalent in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Just as the nation's builders found a civic framework in the moral and political ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, those Americans who first recognized the need for a national culture sought foundations in classical art and architecture. It was hoped that the style and subject matter of classical art, filtered through European neo-classicism, would provide a lofty, moral imperative appropriate - and necessary - for a new nation in need of images to reinforce history, aspirations and collective myths. Vanderlyn's figures of Washington and Lafayette, astride horses that evoke the monumentality of classical sculpture, embody a symbolic nobility that transcends the battle as a singular event.

A much different image is Brandywine Battlefield (1870) by the Philadelphia artist William Russell Smith (1812-1896), lent by the Delaware Art Museum. By this time, grand style history painting had succumbed to American art's steady progress toward democratization. With transcontinental expansion, national identity had become inextricably linked to geography, and artists infused landscape paintings with the grandeur and moral symbolism formerly associated with history painting. Smith's pastoral view of the battlefield -- marred only by a blasted tree, a ruined rail fence and the barrel of an old cannon -- emphasizes the land's agricultural bounty, symbolic of a distinctly American plentitude that could endure and even mitigate the scars of war. (right: Howard Pyle (1853-1911), The Nation Makers, ca. 1903, Oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 26 inches, Collection of the Brandywine River Museum )

The battlefield and the increasing importance of commemorative events especially appealed to painters who made this area home during the 20th century. Undoubtedly the rich history of the area attracted Howard Pyle (1853-1911) during the summers of 1898, 1899 and 1901-1903. Pyle added another subtle layer to the landscape with his stirring painting The Nation Makers (ca. 1903).  Pyle's students, too, were caught in the web of history, myth and landscape, and none more so than N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) whose presence in Chadds Ford satisfied an intense longing to live with collective memories that create landscape from terrain. Wyeth's In A Dream I Meet General Washington (1930) is an intensely personal painting born from a deep conviction that history binds man to the land.   The figure of a boy intently drawing in the lower left corner of In a Dream... is Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917) and anticipates the young artist's lifelong interest in the battlefield. Paintings by Andrew Wyeth in the exhibition include Pennsylvania Landscape (1941), a major tempera portrait of the tree and house associated with the wounded Lafayette; British at Brandywine (1962), a watercolor whose subject belies its evocative power; and Plundered (1996), a drybrush watercolor of Brinton's Mill where British troops used looted flour to whiten their stockings the day after the battle.

Another artist's interest in the battle is represented by Barclay Rubincam's (1920-1978) Sentry at Birmingham (1959). With the slight shadow of a militiaman thrown across a portrait of the worn doorway of the Birmingham Quaker meetinghouse, Rubincam's picture resonates with tension between war and pacifism.

This exhibition marks the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Brandywine. Museum visitors will discover that although American soldiers retreated from the river in 1777, successive generations of American artists created from the conflict paintings that contribute to our complex national identity and enrich our experience of the surrounding landscape.


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