Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge


4. History

Every society has its narrative of formation. Some call it a creation myth, others call it history. But by whatever name, the tale seems essential to the sense of national identity. And just as members feel the need to relate the tale verbally-in sagas and ballads, dramas, histories and verse -- so, too, are they compelled to illustrate it with pictures. "Nations and societies," claim historians Patricia Burnham and Lucretia Giese, "have a fundamental need to tell stories about themselves in art: to recount their past, make sense of their present, and project their future. Their desire is to embody their concerns, achievements, and aspirations as a people in visible form." This compulsion is "certainly true," they observe, of Americans.[42]

Sometimes this visible form appeared as allegory, a traditional form that occurs, as described by critic Craig Owens, "whenever one text is doubled by another"; it is a technique in which "one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be." In the visual arts, that "doubling" may occur when "the image becomes something other (allos = other + agoreuei = to speak)." Owens deconstructs the techniques of contemporary artists who appropriate existing imagery, draining it of its original significance and substituting another meaning. But the allegorical impulse, although long scorned by modernists before its recent resurrection by Owens and others, had a distinguished lineage in earlier Western visual art. There, the depicted thing (person, object, even a nonobjective form) stands for some other thing. It might be the personification of an abstract quality (Democracy, Faith) or an activity, such as the figures in Benjamin West's Agriculture, 1789 (Mint Museum of Art), representing Husbandry aided by Arts and Commerce. It might be the symbol of a specific trait (a profession, a region or place). Or it might be something in between -- but something that is more than or other than the thing or figure depicted. Something "doubled." The pictorial allegory becomes a hieroglyph awaiting deciphering, an image with an "essentially pictogrammatical nature."[43]

Specific figures -- from myth or Scripture, historical or allegorical -- might be indicated by particular attributes, which clarify their reading. For instance, in a painting by Luther Terry (fig. 9), three elaborately costumed women, seated before a distant landscape vista, suggest a meaningful masquerade. The central woman has draped striped fabric over a white tunic, while blue fabric with white stars encases her lower body; on her head is a red cap of distinctive form, and she holds a curious implement of wood and metal. The stars and stripes, of course, are the national flag, the headdress is a Phrygian or Liberty cap, and in her left hand are the bound fasces of the Roman republic -- a collection of attributes that add up to a personification of America (or possibly Liberty, symbolic of the United States). She is flanked by contrasting blonde and brunette women. The former holds a tome entitled Useful Arts and Sciences and is posed before a typical New England village, with steeple and factory, the embodiment of the North. Her counterpart leans on a cotton bale with abundant harvest at her feet and slaves working the fields beyond, an allusion to the American South. These three figures combine in An Allegory of the North and the South. This visual allegory was painted in Rome by a Connecticut expatriate, a pictorial plea for preservation of the Union in the troublesome years immediately preceding the outbreak of Civil War. Following the war, Constantino Brumidi similarly used female protagonists in his painted allegory of reconciliation, Columbia Welcoming the South Back into the Union, circa 1876 (Morris Museum of Art), and in Atlanta James Moser exhibited a large allegorical painting, The New South Welcoming the Nations of the Earth, at the International Cotton Exposition in October 1881.[44]

The painters' responses to mid-nineteenth-century military events and disunion might have appeared exceptional when compared with those in other creative fields. "[A]mong the surprises" from the Civil War, wrote one literary historian, for instance, "is the fact that out of so convulsing, so overwhelming a tragedy there came so little good poetry."[45] But if poets -- at least, good ones -- passed, painters did not. Reckoning with divisive North-South issues in their work became a strong motivation for numerous artists on both sides of the conflict. Some, like Terry or Brumidi, dealt with the national schism in allegorical terms, with personifications. Others took different approaches, some treating specific incidents with documentary precision (or its approximation), some with propagandistic intent, some in images rich in genrelike detail or suffused with sentiment.

Years after the war, Gilbert Gaul, painter, illustrator, and National Academician, was commissioned by several gentlemen of Nashville to create a series of paintings that would "crystallize on canvas the magnificent deeds of daring and love which distinguished the Confederate soldier." The series depicted the warriors' "courage, sacrifice, heroism, sufferings, and home life" in images that were to be reproduced in a portfolio, With the Confederate Colors, ostensibly to stimulate regional pride.[46] Leaving Home, ca. 1907 (cat. no. 23), from that commission, is a rumination on time-honored traditions of valor: a handsome, young Confederate soldier bravely bids adieu to his proud father, leaving his weeping mother, anxious sisters, and faithful servants and pets. Painted two generations after the outbreak of Civil War, Gaul's mise-en-scène is staged in a domestic setting that enhances the bathetic moment, drenched in the sentimentalism of the late nineteenth century.

Domestic settings were found in other historical subjects dealing with war; though of a different sort, such environs, as they did in Gaul's painting, added a poignant note to depictions of the home front. Tompkins Matteson was among the best known genre and history painters of the mid-nineteenth century. His reputation was made early with a patriotic subject, The Spirit of '76 (unlocated). In The Making of Ammunition, 1855 (cat. no. 46), another subject from the Revolutionary War, Matteson, like Gaul, depicted a family gathered in a domestic interior, where colonials of several generations urgently prepare for hostilities with the unseen British: children cast bullets from melted pewter, making ammo from heirlooms; earnest young men take up arms, while a legless elder, his amputation suggesting earlier acts of military bravery, pays rapt attention to reports read by another; women help to arm and inspire the patriots who, like Gaul's young Confederate, will soon leave home for an uncertain future. It was a moment rife with uncertainty, just as was the antebellum moment in which Matteson painted; his historical wartime motif seems to reflect, even to illustrate, the tensions in mid-nineteenth-century America.

In modern times, the home front continued to play an important role in warfare; Rosie the Riveter of World War II was the most familiar of these subjects, but scarcely the only. In American fields as well as factories, patriotic citizens saluted the national cause, such as the black sharecropper's family in Richard Wilt's Low Altitude Formation (Farewell), 1943 (cat. no. 67). Like southerners in earlier wars, those of the "greatest generation" rallied to the cause, but now traveling from home in bombers that roared above the rust red land. In 1943, in the depths of the struggle, several artists were inspired by the unusual sight of military aircraft flying low over the southern landscape. That year, the Savannah carver Ulysses Davis made a painted relief, Farmhouses with Airplanes (colI. Mr. and Mrs. David E. Miller Jr.), and Lamar Baker published his lithograph Wings over Mississippi (Columbus Museum), depicting a black field hand arrested by the sight of planes overhead. In Wilt's painting the fliers similarly capture the attention of observers below, eliciting a farewell salute from one woman, and frightening children and livestock. Wilt's planes, B-25 Mitchells -- a craft the artist knew well -- were among the workhorses of World War II. Wilt began his pilot's training on the plane in Georgia in 1942, and the following year he flew a B-25 during World War II's North African campaign. Early in 1945, after fifty-five missions overseas, he returned to Greenville, South Carolina, to train other pilots on the aircraft until the war's end.[47] His experiences in Georgia and South Carolina gave him familiarity with the southern landscape depicted in his painting. His sympathy for African Americans, who figure prominently in that and other paintings, arose from the same experience in the South and from the influence of subjects favored by his close friend Robert Gwathmey. Beginning in September 1943, B-25s were used in training flights by the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, heroic African American pilots schooled at the historic Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This association potentially adds a note of racial and regional as well as nationalist pride to Wilt's poignant patriotic subject.

The Civil War had a long hold on the American imagination, particularly in the South. It was not, however, just a chivalric memory, a sentimental indulgence, represented by Gilbert Gaul's With the Confederate Colors paintings or in the pages of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Like many modern conflicts, the Civil War inspired some artists to record events in a documentary fashion. Artist-correspondents such as Edwin Forbes or Winslow Homer made sketches of camp life and battlefield exploits. Their sketches were reproduced as wood engravings, providing Northern newspaper readers with firsthand images of the war. Soldier-painter Conrad Wise Chapman, who served at Shiloh, similarly provided an eyewitness account of life in the Confederate military. Later, Chapman's sketches and paintings documented Confederate military fortifications, particularly those at Charleston, of which he produced a series of thirty-one oil paintings (Confederate Museum, Richmond).

Charleston was famous as the cradle of the rebellion, the site where the war began in April 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. In 1863, it was the scene again of fierce bombardment, less famous than the first, but symptomatic of the Confederacy's determined endurance, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Despite the best efforts of Union forces to win back the strategic and symbolic site, Fort Sumter did not finally surrender until near the end of the war, when the infantry protecting it were withdrawn to defend the city against Sherman's anticipated attack. It was during this second siege that Chapman began his documentation of the region; but he was not the only artist to witness the scene. John Ross Key, trained as a draftsman and cartographer, served as an officer with the Confederate Engineers. Key's professional training gave his works an exacting accuracy of the sort that would satisfy both military and aesthetic needs. His large panoramic view of the bombardment in the late summer of 1863 (fig. 10 ) was painted two years later based on the artist's personal surveillance of the battle and his on-site sketches.

William Aiken Walker, a native of Charleston, also served the Confederacy; in the army, his duties included drawing maps and sketching the defenses of his hometown. Such works are not merely picturesque views but, like Key's or Chapman's, documents intended to provide specific information crucial to officers and engineers. From this practice of utilitarian draftsmanship Walker developed the habits of exacting detail that figured in his later paintings, such as the Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, Charleston, 1863 (cat. no. 66). The expansive harbor view was painted in 1886 based on sketches Walker had made of another unsuccessful Union attack on Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863, a preliminary to the late summer assault portrayed in Key's view. Walker's painting, which was commissioned by the Confederate States Corps of Engineers, details the battle as viewed from East Battery with topographic accuracy, showing Castle Pinckney at the left, Fort Sumter in the center, Fort Moultrie in the distance, and Fort Johnson at the extreme right. Watching from the Battery are citizens from various strata of Charleston's society -- aristocrats, slaves, flower women -- all attracted by the spectacle of bombardment, a tourist's-eye view of the war.

While Walker brought a trained hand to his task, other documentary views were the product of untutored artists struggling to bring accuracy to their painted depictions of specific incidents. Jean-Hyacinthe Laclotte was one such witness to history. A combatant in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, he later painted that bloody conflict (cat. no. 38), painstakingly diagraming the placement of British and American troops (including General Andrew Jackson), the cannons, the tents of the encampment. Though vastly outnumbered, Jackson's American forces enjoyed the advantage of elevated position -- and of British military misjudgments -- which led to a glorious victory and the end of America's "second war of independence," all carefully documented in Laclotte's canvas.[48]

Of course, not every history painter was eyewitness to his subject; indeed, most were not. The wanderings of early European explorers across the North American landscape went unpainted by their contemporaries, but the absence of such historical visual records did little to deter later generations of artists who were wont to imagine and re-create incidents of yore. Though best known today for his renderings of western scenery, Thomas Moran also painted other locales, including Florida, which he first visited in 1877 on assignment for Scribner's. But the artist aspired to more than picturesque subjects for magazine illustration. Encouraged by the unprecedented purchase by Congress of his two grand paintings of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Moran sought to repeat that success with a southern subject, one that combined the landscape and its exotic flora with events from human history. The Floridian exploits of Ponce de Leon and his quest for the Fountain of Youth provided the inspiration for Moran's large canvas of 1878 (fig. 11) in which natural history obscures human, the towering trees and lush vegetation nearly overwhelming diminutive Spaniards and Native Americans alike.

The protagonists are more easily discerned in The Coronation of Powhatan by John Gadsby Chapman (cat. no. 15). In this work from early in his career, Chapman (father of the aforementioned Conrad Wise Chapman) described Captain John Smith's crowning of the Virginia chief, who was the father of Pocahontas. American artists had for several generations -- from Benjamin West to Chapman's own time -- sought to emulate the European vogue for history paintings. Their compatriots, however, generally proved resistant to such subjects, which often required sophisticated knowledge of the classics, Scripture, and European literature and history, a mastery that many in the fledgling nation lacked. As the society matured, a new appetite for historical motifs developed. However, in lieu of the arcane themes that often appeared in European works, Americans patrons increasingly were drawn to subjects from their own national past. As early as 1812, one magazine editorialized that "It is extremely gratifying to the lovers of the fine arts in this country, to see a taste and disposition to encourage historical painting and engraving, by introducing among us a taste for subjects from our own history. It is certainly the most proper method to establish schools of art in America."[49] With victory in the War of 1812 and the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s, the sense of a distinctive American nation and tradition gained new enthusiasm from its citizens, and artists responded in kind. In the 1830s, the most important governmental commission awarded to date, the decoration of the U.S. Capitol rotunda, drew the lively interest of many painters. In an earlier generation, they might have opted for biblical themes or more abstract allegories, but now many were fueled by patriotic fervor to depict distinctively American subjects. The winners portrayed the landing of Columbus (John Vanderlyn), de Soto's discovery of the Mississippi (William H. Powell), the embarkation of the Pilgrims for the New World (Robert Weir), and the baptism of Pocahontas. The last, by John Gadsby Chapman, was related -- in theme and by blood -- to his earlier depiction of the coronation of Pocahontas's father, Powhatan, a painting that might be seen as a rehearsal for the Capitol competition.

Subjects from the settlement period motivated other artists, both in Chapman's generation and later. About the same moment that Chapman was painting Powhatan, Chapman's distant cousin George Cooke, a son of Maryland and resident of numerous southern locales over his lifetime, also turned to Virginia history with The Coming of the Maidens as Wives for the Settlers, circa 1830 (fig. 12). Although Cooke failed in his effort to win a commission for a southern subject, the Battle of Cowpens, in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, his regional loyalties were suggested in other themes tackled during the period, such as Patrick Henry Arguing the Parson's Cause at Hanover Court House, circa 1834 (Virginia Historical Society, Richmond).

Dramatic themes from southern history -- recent incidents as well as those from the distant past -- have attracted attention from many painters, and they continue to do so to the present day. Bernice Sims, for example, was stirred by momentous events from what has been called "the quintessential Southern story, the civil rights movement" of the 1960s,[50] to create a memory painting recording that difficult history (fig. 13). Combining three vignettes on a single panel -- a triptych format commonly associated with sacred images, but now secularized and upended, organized vertically -- Sims records the 1965 confrontation of white police and black marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; police firehosing black marchers in Birmingham; and, in the center, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Though Sims was not an eyewitness to the Memphis shooting, she was actively involved with the civil rights struggle in her native South; hence, for her these motifs from recent history have personal as well as a larger societal meaning.

Southern history could affect visitors as well as natives. In 1918, the Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton was stationed with the navy in Norfolk, Virginia, near where the bride ships, the subject of Cooke's early-nineteenth-century painting, had arrived almost three hundred years before. Benton shared earlier artists' historical interests and their delight in distinctive regional traits of the American people, who by his day were considerably more diverse and widespread than in Cooke's. While in Virginia, Benton conceived the idea of painting a series on American history. Inspired by a volume of J. A. Spencer's History of the United States and informed by his own travels across much of the American landscape, Benton embarked on what he envisioned as a suite of seventy-five paintings (of which fewer than twenty were completed) with the collective title The American Historical Epic. The series was conceived in three "chapters," the first devoted to European settlement and conflicts with the native tribes, the second to the conquest of the continent's mountainous interior, and the third to the economic life of the young colonies. It was the first chapter that inspired Benton's Brideship (Colonial Brides) (cat. no. 5), which dates from late in the development of the cycle (and is possibly a postlude to it).

If Powhatan and colonial brides are, to most Americans, relatively unfamiliar figures, George Washington is the opposite. His is a visage, as painted by Gilbert Stuart and countless others, that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. The good, truth-telling boy of Parson Weems's fable; the surveyor of the Virginia wilderness; the hero of the Revolution, bravely leading his troops across the Delaware, as portrayed by Emmanuel Leutze or George Caleb Bingham (cat. no. 7), and on to triumph at Yorktown; an American Cincinnatus, the squire of Mount Vernon (as depicted by Junius Stearns, cat. no. 56); the first president and the Father of His Country: Washington alone provided enough of both history and myth to occupy generations of patriotic artists, who told and retold his life story in paint and print.


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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:

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