Editor's note: The following essay, excerpted without illustrations from the exhibition catalogue In This Academy: The Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts 1805 - 1976, is reprinted July 30, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Artist as Interpreter of American History
by Mark Thistlethwaite
Between the War of Independence and the Civil War, generations of Americans were filled with a sense of destiny as well as with concern for the future of their new nation. A major interest then was the inventing and sustaining of a sense of national identity and uniqueness. The assertive nationalism of the age, evident in George Murray's remarks of 1812, provided the motivating spirit for the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Art, particularly images of American historical events and person-ages, furnished visual concretization of the emerging American identity. Moreover, history painting, through the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, was idealized as the highest branch of art, "the epic of the art," an early nineteenth-century journal declared. From its inception, the Pennsylvania Academy manifested respect for and encouragement of the art of history painting.
In a letter of 1805, setting forth the plans and organization of the new Pennsylvania Academy, founder Charles Willson Peale informed Thomas Jefferson that "Mr. West is very anxious to have all his designs, the originals of historic paintings placed here." Benjamin West, a native of Pennsylvania, historical painter to George III, and, in the words of Robert Fulton, "an artist of the most transcendental merit," personified the high standard of art to which the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy aspired. In 1807 the Academy exhibited four paintings by West from the collection of Robert Fulton and also eleven paintings by Robert Smirke, illustrating scenes from Joel Barlow's epic patriotic poem Columbiad. Related primarily to the history of America, Smirke's works were considered "gems in the art of history painting." In 1850 the high status accorded history painting by the Pennsylvania Academy was evidenced by a competition in which the category of Historical, Scriptural, and Dramatic carried a substantially greater monetary award than that of the other class, Landscape or Marine. A specific interest in American historical subjects was shown by the Temple Historical Painting Competition of 1883, which was restricted to entries depicting the War of Independence and its antecedent events. Special exhibitions such as "Revolutionary Pictures" of 1898 and "A Gallery of National Portraiture and Historical Scenes" in 1926 further attest to the Academy's interest in American history painting. The Academy's collection now includes major monuments of history painting, notably Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians and Perry's Victory on Lake Erie by Thomas Birch. A particular strength of the Academy's collection lies in historical portraiture, as exemplified by Charles Willson Peale's George Washington at Princeton and Gilbert Stuart's famous "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington.
While the Pennsylvania Academy did collect and exhibit American history painting, it actually favored other forms of American art, especially portraiture. Although critic Henry Edwin Brown claimed in 1900 that the "Academy seems to have had a surfeit of historical paintings since the days of Benjamin West," an examination of the Academy's annual exhibition catalogues reveals that American historical works rarely constituted even five percent of the total objects of any given exhibition. In fact, paintings treating European historical events were as, if not more, popular; of the sixteen paintings judged in the competition of 1850, fourteen were by foreign artists and none depicted American history. The Pennsylvania Academy's most ambitious attempt to support American history painting was the Temple Historical Painting Competition of 1883. Limited to depictions of events of the Revolutionary War, the competition offered a first prize of $3000 and various medals. However, the competition proved unsuccessful when only four artists submitted entries. The lack of artist participation not only indicated the low status of history painting in the late nineteenth century but also symbolized history painting's inability to succeed throughout most of American history.
Except in the mid-nineteenth century, during a flourishing of nationalism before the devastating blows of sectionalism and civil war, American history painting never really took root in this country. Early artists with grand ambitions as history painters -- men like Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, John Vanderlyn, Washington Allston, and Samuel F. B. Morse, all of whom were Pennsylvania Academicians -- either left America or worked in frustration and disappointment. With insight, Charles Carroll, the patron of Charles Willson Peale, warned Peale as early as 1769 of the prospects of history painting in America:
Insufficient large-scale and consistent patronage (in Europe the traditional role of church and state), the rise of landscape and genre painting as expressions of American nationalism, and the impact of the camera adversely affected the development of history painting in America. To some artists, notably Washington Allston, the painting of battle scenes, a major staple of historical art, seemed essentially immoral in nature. A few, finding "the want of a picturesque past," demanded: "After taking out the Indians and the Puritans, what is there left besides the contentions of deliberative assemblies and the mathematical evolutions of the wars of Great Britain and Mexico?" Even the nature of history painting was questioned; Fairman Rogers, a director of the Pennsylvania Academy, noted in regard to the Temple Competition: "Some care will have to be exercised in defining what historical painting is, which it strikes me is not an easy thing to do." Rogers's concern was, in large part, prompted by the breakdown in distinctions between history and genre painting. While these factors restricted the growth of history painting in America, such painting was more prevalent than is generally realized today. Furthermore, history painting was repeatedly encouraged, at least in principle, during the late eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries.
In their encouragement of history painting, American artists and writers continually extolled the lofty characteristics traditionally associated with the art. For example, The Crayon of January 1855 described history painting as an art that should be "the embodiment of grand and noble emotions, of heroic exploits, and, as far as possible, should uphold and depict the dignity, and not the weakness of human nature." In an address delivered at the Pennsylvania Academy before the Artists' Fund Society in 1836, John Neagle defined history painting, especially paintings of American history, as
The faculties necessary in achieving success as a history painter were discussed in an article on Benjamin West in The Port Folio of October 1809:
West had indeed achieved "eminence in this style," exemplified by Penn's Treaty with the Indians, now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy. Furthermore, his Death of Wolfe of 1770, rendering a scene from the French and Indian War, became mythologized as a "revolution" in history painting. Although he rejected the convention of classical garments demanded even in paintings of contemporary history, West nevertheless maintained the sense of dignity and grandeur expected of history painting. In so doing, he effectively declared modern action as heroic as that of the antique past, a point emphasized by John Sartain in an 1862 article accompanying his engraving of West's painting (cat. no. 146). The heroic mode and "revolutionary" character of Death of Wolfe offered nineteenth-century American artists history painting in its august form. George Peter Alexander Healy's Franklin Urging the Claims of the American Colonies Before Louis XVI of about 1874 (cat. no. 132) continued this grand style. However, the nineteenth century also saw the emergence of a "genre-ization" or domestication of history painting, in which exalted historical figures became secularized and events of minor importance were portrayed. The two sides of history painting, the heroic and the domesticated, are exemplified by Junius Brutus Stearns's Washington as Statesman, at the Constitutional Convention (cat. no. 151) and his Washington as Farmer, at Mount Vernon (cat. no. 150). The former apotheosizes Washington as a hero; the latter humanizes him as farmer. In both, however, the size and scale are that of genre rather than history painting. Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front (cat. no. 134) and William Ranney's Return of Revolutionary Veterans (cat. no. 143) further typify this popular mode of historical genre.
By their selection and treatment of subject matter, artists serve not only as history's recorders but also as its interpreters. The artist may choose to reconstruct the past, as in Healy's Franklin Before Louis XVI, or to render a contemporary event, like Perry's Victory on Lake Erie by Thomas Birch (cat. no. 125). In representing history, the artist may strive for historical accuracy, as in William Trego's Battery of Light Artillery en Route (cat. no.154), for an imaginative re-creation, like The First Landing of Christopher Columbus by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (cat. no. 138), or for more obviously mythical aspects, as in Parson Weems' Fable (cat. no. 155), a painting by Grant Wood. Artists may also derive their subjects from literature, as seen in James Hamilton's Old Ironsides (cat. no. 131) and Last Moments of John Brown (cat. no. 136) by Thomas Hovenden. And with each generation interpreting the past in the light of its own experience and expectations, artists may elect to employ past events to express meaning for their present, as Peter Rothermel did in State House, Day of the Battle of Germantown, painted in 1862 (cat. no. 144) . However the artist renders American history, his art not only reflects and defines that history but also contributes to it.
While a complete survey of American history painting is beyond the scope of this exhibition, the selection of art objects does offer varying conceptions of history painting and visual interpretations of American events from the moment of discovery to the tragedy of the Civil War.
The discovery and settlement of America have been favorite subjects for history painters. Frederick Kemmelmeyer's fanciful representation of The First Landing of Christopher Columbus (cat. no. 138), painted between 1800 and 1805, anticipated the numerous works which were to be inspired by Washington Irving's 1827 Life of Columbus. Kemmelmeyer interpreted the event as an amiable, though tentative, confrontation between Europe and the New World. Columbus and his group, appearing sophisticated and elegant, scrutinize the natives across a small, symbolic gulf of water. Approaching in the middle-ground, one of Columbus's men holds out jewelry to a crouching Indian, who, in return, offers the fruits of the New World.
Joseph Andrews's 1869 engraving The Landing of the Pilgrims (cat. no. 124), after a painting by Peter Rothermel exhibited in the 1854 Pennsylvania Academy annual, depicts another popular American scene. But, like the Kemmelmeyer, this dramatic composition is not merely a record of historical fact; rather it seems to be a visualization of the following poem by Felicia Hemans:
Although not documented, it is probable that Rothermel was directly inspired by this popular poem for his painting. Nineteenth-century history painters, Rothermel in particular, commonly drew from literary sources, for the idea of literature and the visual arts as kindred spirits was prevalent among artists and men of letters. Rothermel, who was a major Philadelphia painter of historical canvases, had a distinguished career with the Pennsylvania Academy, serving on its Board of Directors and as an instructor in its school. In 1852 the Pennsylvania Academy formally petitioned Congress to commission Rothermel to execute a painting for the enlarged Capitol at Washington. Shortly afterward, the Congressional Committee on the Library resolved to "inquire into the expediency of employing ... Mr. Rothermel ... to execute two paintings, the subjects ... to be drawn from the Revolutionary history." Although the matter was considered again in 1853, the artist never received the commission.
Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom (cat. no. 133), a mid-1830s variation of a recurrent theme in his work, contrasts in form and content with Rothermel's The Landing of the Pilgrims. Hicks, a Bucks County carriage painter and Quaker leader, was self-taught, and his primitive style differs greatly from the European-derived academicism of Rothermel. While Rothermel depicted man's struggle against nature, Hicks conveyed man in harmony with the world. Inspired by the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6), the Quaker artist depicted in the foreground:
By coupling this foreground arrangement with a middle ground group based on an engraving of West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians, Hicks created a "Quaker icon" glorifying the peaceable kingdom of Penn's Holy Experiment.
The Revolutionary War has proved to be the source for many of the most important and popular American history paintings. As a subject, it was immediately adopted by such dissimilar artists as Amos Doolittle and John Trumbull, who executed the most famous series of paintings related to the event. Another contemporary work is The Battle of Lexington, a 1798 engraving by Cornelius Tiebout (cat. no. 153) after a design by Elkanah Tisdale. With its obvious theatrical gestures and poses, the composition assumes a tableau-like quality. By such means, the artist created a stirring, patriotic, and historically inaccurate scene. For Americans, the achievements of the Revolution were vast and, with the reinforcement of such dramatizations as The Battle of Lexington, assumed mythic proportions. "It is doubtful if any other event in this history of nations called forth so many heroic deeds, so many noble virtues, and so many sublime sentiments," asserted an early nineteenth-century journal. The Revolution provided an instant history, a "usable past." As Albert G. Remington, writing at mid-century, claimed: "Though we have no Marathon or Thermopylae, Agincourt or Cressy, we have Saratoga, Bunker Hill, and Monmouth."
While Tiebout's engraving renders the heat of battle, Peter Rothermel's State House, Day of the Battle of Germantown (cat. no. 144) delineates the results of conflict -- not the glory of war but rather its inevitable human wreckage. Outside the State House, which served as a hospital and prisoner-of-war jail during the British occupation of Philadelphia, American prisoners wounded in this 1777 battle are tended by American women.
Rothermel's unusual "battle" scene can be interpreted as portraying the important contributions made by women during the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, the work, painted in 1862, may have been designed to pay homage to contemporary women as well. Like their Revolutionary forebears, women during the Civil War heroically nursed and cared for the suffering. In fact, women initiated and figured prominently in the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization founded in 1861 to provide medical relief to soldiers. It was highly appropriate that Rothermel's painting was exhibited at the Great Central Fair held in Philadelphia in 1864 for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission.
A more traditional battle representation is Thomas Eakins's bronze relief panel on the Trenton Battle Monument, The Opening of the Battle (cat. no. 129). This panel, with its companion-piece, The Army of Washington Crossing the Delaware (cat. no. 127), was placed on the monument in 1895. Both panels are included here as photographs of the plaster models taken and inscribed by the artist. Eakins's Washington Crossing the Delaware offers an alternative composition to what is today probably the best-known American historical work, Emanuel Leutze's painting of the same subject. Rather than rendering Washington as a Moses-figure leading his people, Eakins depicted, with convincing historical correctness, a seated, pensive general contemplating the battle ahead.
Of all Revolutionary subjects -- indeed of all American historical subjects -- the most consistently popular has been George Washington. Early in the nineteenth century the visiting Russian diplomatic official and artist Pavel Svinin observed the American preoccupation with this hero: "It is noteworthy that every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his house, just as we have images of God's Saints." A selection of works in this exhibition demonstrates the range of interpretations brought to bear on the "Father of Our Country."
In 1779 Charles Willson Peale, who had painted Washington as early as 1772 when he was a colonel in the Virginia militia, was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania to render a full-length portrait of the General for its Council Chamber. The council desired the portrait "not only as a mark of the great respect which they bear to His Excellency, but that the contemplation of it may excite others to tread in the same glorious and disinterested steps which lead to public happiness and private honor." The aims expressed are those of history painting, and the work is indeed historical portraiture. The composition (cat. no. 140) depicts a relaxed and confident Washington after the victory at Princeton. At the feet of the General lie, symbolically, the captured enemy flags. Visible in the background are Nassau Hall and Hessian prisoners being led off. The artist, who served in the Revolutionary army, created a scene correct in its detail. With its combination of portraiture and history, Peale's George Washington at Princeton was very successful; in all, Peale painted nineteen replicas from the original.
In contrast to the informal assuredness displayed by Peale's Washington at Princeton is the more idealized and formal characterization of Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" portrait of Washington (cat. no. 152). Stuart finished this portrait in his Germantown studio in 1796. Painted for the prominent Philadelphian William Bingham, the work fulfilled the purpose of a state portrait: "not the portrayal of an individual as such, but the evocation through his image of those abstract principles for which he stands." Even more than Peale, Stuart rendered Washington as the personification of an ideal, as an icon.
The mythic image that Stuart achieved in the "Lansdowne" and in his other portraits of Washington is honored in Carl Heinrich Schmolze's George Washington Sitting for His Portrait to Gilbert Stuart, painted in 1858 (cat. no. 147). Schmolze, a German who settled in Philadelphia in 1856, exhibited this work at the 1858 Pennsylvania Academy annual. In this painting, he employed a common nineteenth-century motif: the depiction of a notable incident in the history of art. Examples of this genre which Schmolze may have seen in the Academy annual exhibitions of 1856 and 1857 included Guido Reni Painting Beatrice Cenci by A. Ratti and Rembrandt in His Studio by H. F. Tenkate. Schmolze's painting honors not only Washington but also Stuart as the interpreter and perpetuator of the hero's fame; ultimately, such a work pays homage to the art profession. In the composition, Washington appears dignified and nobly aloof. The elderly woman, to whom Stuart turns somewhat condescendingly, is undoubtedly Martha Washington. It was she who commissioned the "Athenaeum" portrait of Washington, a sketch of which is discernible on Stuart's canvas.
Junius Brutus Stearns illustrated the life of Washington in a series of paintings executed in the mid-nineteenth century. One of those works depicts Washington as a statesman; another shows him as a farmer. Stearns aimed for an accurate portrayal of the event and its participants in his Washington as Statesman, at the Constitutional Convention of 1856 (cat. no. 151). The very presence of Washington at the convention, acting as its president, served to assure its success, and Stearns portrayed the climactic moment, just prior to the voting, when Washington was about to address the delegates after four months of self-imposed, official silence. Washington appears as a hero, a symbol of stability and leadership in a time of chaos. In contrast to this work is Stearns's Washington as Farmer, At Mount Vernon, painted in 1851 (cat. no. 150) and exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1854. The hero, still a leader, now becomes humanized and domestic; his pose is a "domesticated Lansdowne." This romantic scene shows the dignified gentleman-farmer the role Washington most preferred-supervising heroic slaves in the harvesting of wheat, while his two adopted grandchildren play nearby. The sentimental and patriotic spirit of Stearns's work undoubtedly reflects the great interest during the 1850s in the restoration of Mount Vernon.
Both the humanization of Stearns's Washington As Farmer and the mythic nature of Schmolze's painting of Washington sitting for Stuart had been presaged in literature by the writing of Mason Locke Weems. Weems's The Life of Washington, first published in 1800, enjoyed phenomenal success and, although fundamentally fictive, became the source of popular notions regarding Washington. The extent to which Weems the myth-maker has influenced American thought is demonstrated by Grant Wood's Parson Weems' Fable, painted in 1939 (cat. no. 155) . In this canvas, which is strikingly similar to Charles Willson Peale's The Artist in His Museum of 1822, the Parson draws back a cherry-tassled curtain and points to an enactment of his famous, or infamous, cherry tree incident. The fictional episode appeared in the fifth edition of the Life of Washington, published in 1806:
Wood, feeling the need to make the "sweet face of youth" immediately recognizable, transplanted Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington to the body of the child. The artist's use of this clever device recalls John Neal's remark of 1823: "If George Washington should appear on earth, just as he sat to Stuart, I am sure that he would be treated as an imposter, when compared with Stuart's likeness of him, unless he produced credentials."  The Stuart iconic Washington is thus wedded to the mythic Washington of Weems. Although his painting was critized by some irate citizens, Wood maintained that he liked the cherry tree story and hoped it would continue to be taught as a fable.
Weems's influence on art is further evidenced by the print General Marion in His Swamp Encampment Inviting a British Officer to Dinner by John Sartain (cat. no. 145). A passage in Weems's 1809 biography of Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" of the Revolution, served as the inspiration for John Blake White's painting after which this mezzotint was taken. The scene portrays the hardships that Marion's men endured in the name of liberty.
Graphic works such as Sartain's were vehicles which provided the public with the instructive, elevating, and patriotic qualities of history painting. Published in quantity, prints had the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, making art available to the masses usually unable to purchase works of art. Lacking patronage, history painters could have their work engraved in the hopes of increasing their income and reputation. Both artists and the public benefited from the distribution of prints as premiums and prizes offered by art unions and organizations, such as the Apollo Association (later the American Art-Union). By achieving fairly wide circulation, prints of history paintings aided in the securing of an American identity.
Like Sartain's print of Marion, another popular print portraying a Revolutionary military hero was David Edwin's engraving of 1814, Peter Francisco's Gallant Action, with Nine of Tarleton's Cavalry, in Sight of the Whole Troop of 400 Men (cat. no. 130). The original painting by J. Warrell was listed in the catalogue of the Pennsylvania Academy's 1812 exhibition, with a lengthy passage describing the efforts of the superhuman Virginia patriot Francisco in overcoming tremendous adversity. Surely this print had special significance for Americans then engaged in the War of 1812. Although criticizing the painting from which the engraving was taken as "rude" in drawing, George Murray commended the artist Warrell, stating:
The crude, yet powerful, style of Peter Francisco's Gallant Action differs greatly from the sophisticated handling of form in George Peter Alexander Healy's Franklin Urging the Claims of the American Colonies Before Louis XVI, painted about 1847 (cat. no. 132). The work is the original study for the large painting commissioned by King Louis Philippe and lost in the Chicago fire of 1871. The painting focuses on the plainly attired Benjamin Franklin, a symbol to the French of Rousseauian New World primitivism, standing amid the splendor of Versailles. Healy, a renowned portraitist, not only rendered recognizable likenesses of the main figures in the composition but also, after extensive research, attained historical authenticity throughout in details of the setting and the costumes.
Quite unlike Healy's awe-inspiring scene is William Ranney's humorous Return of Revolutionary Veterans, painted in 1848 (cat. no. 143). Last seen publicly in an 1866 Pennsylvania Academy exhibition, the painting was once described in the following terms: "a merry picture. The old soldiers are going home in a dilapidated condition. Their equipage is a rude cart drawn by a ruder steed." Inscribed on the cart are the names of major Revolutionary battles; it is believed that the two soldiers in the wagon are Generals Henry Knox and Anthony Wayne. Through historical genre, the artist humanized and poked fun at great men. Ranney's interpretation of history in this manner parallels con-temporary ideas expressed by Washington Irving:
The War of 1812, like the Revolution, provided artists with heroes and heroics to immortalize. During the war years numerous battle scenes hung in the Pennsylvania Academy's annual exhibitions, visually supporting the war's importance as an aggressive assertion of American nationalism. Thomas Birch, Keeper of the Pennsylvania Academy from 1812 to 1816, executed numerous depictions of naval engagements. His Perry's Victory on Lake Erie (cat. no. 125), an unusually large composition in his oeuvre was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy's 1814 annual, and a descriptive key identifying the nautical combatants was published in the catalogue. Rendering an incident which was well known to his contemporaries, Birch sought to combine the reportorial with a sense of the heroic. Striving for verity, the artist had "naval commanders ... describe to him incidents, and from their descriptions he produced the scenes on canvas." 
Birch's literal interpretation of an actual event contrasts with James Hamilton's romantic seascape Old Ironsides (cat. no. 131), inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous poem of the same title. The canvas, typical of the artist's work with, as John Sartain noted, its "appearance of having been dusted off at a heat," has inscribed on its reverse a stanza from the Holmes poem. Completed in 1863 and exhibited the same year at the Pennsylvania Academy, Hamilton's dramatic image of the famous War of 1812 frigate had symbolic meaning for the Civil War: the Constitution floundering on a sea of turmoil.
Christian Schussele's General Andrew Jackson Before Judge Hall, 1815 (cat. no. 148) represents an unfamiliar incident of the War of 1812. Schussele, the first professor of drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy, specialized in historical, Biblical, and genre painting. The date of this compositional study is unknown; it may relate either to a larger painting of the same subject executed by Schussele in 1858-60 (now in the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art) and shown in the Pennsylvania Academy annual exhibitions of 1860 and 1866, or to his woodcut designs prepared for a serial biography of Jackson published in Sartain's Magazine in 1852.
The subject of the study is the trial of Jackson on charges of illegally declaring martial law and defying civil authority in New Orleans at the close of the War of 1812. Desiring historical fidelity in his work, Schussele based his composition on eyewitness accounts. He rendered the dramatic moment when, following a wild outburst of defiance by the pro-Jackson crowd:
After paying a fine and being cheered and carried aloft through the streets by his supporters, the hero of New Orleans harangued the crowd: "I have shown you how to repel invasion, and I have shown you how to defend the liberties of your country, and I now set you an example of obedience to its constituted authorities, which I hope may be profitable to you. Schussele's content -- the obedience to union and authority -- undoubtedly relates to the political upheavals of the 1850s and 1860s.
The taming of the West was another subject often treated by painters of American history. During America's westward course, the zealous spirit of Manifest Destiny was often tempered by the harsh realities of the frontier. Two paintings in this exhibition -- one rendering contemporary history, the other looking back to a romantic past -- offer visual interpretations of the all-too-real tragedies and dangers inherent in the populating of the continent.
William Ranney's Prairie Burial of 1848 (cat. no. 142) shows a melancholy scene on the frontier. Although not a record of a specific occurrence, the work illustrates the hardships and losses endured by the bands of anonymous pioneers. Ranney's historical genre paintings of the West were praised not only for their artistic merit but also for their value as interpretive records of an American era.
The quietism of Ranney's Prairie Burial is countered by Walt Kuhn's image of frontier violence in Wild West No.1 (cat. no. 139). In a loose, abstract manner, the artist represented a single standing white man battling several Indians on horseback. Although not specifically documented as such, the scene recalls Custer's Last Stand. The work is part of a series of nostalgic paintings by Kuhn entitled An Imaginary History of the West. The artist, stimulated by his reading of books on the West, executed the series from 1918 to 1920.
The depiction of the hero and his exploits has always been a major aspect of history painting. A popular but controversial hero is the subject of Thomas Hovenden's Last Moments of John Brown. Hovenden's painting received wide recognition through his 1885 etching, the original plate of which is owned by the Pennsylvania Academy (cat. no. 130). Hovenden, who taught painting at the Academy, played upon the sentimental chord of his society with this work. Lauded as "the best American historical picture yet produced," the work, the public was informed, "should be hung on the walls of every lover of freedom." The artist tapped two sources in creating this painting: the general inspiration came from John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Brown of Ossawattomie," two stanzas of which are inscribed at the bottom of the copper plate; and the features of the hero were copied from a photograph owned by "that sturdy Abolitionist Dr. Furniss [sic ]."
John Brown is the subject of another work in the Pennsylvania Academy's collection -- Horace Pippin's John Brown Going to His Hanging, painted in 1942 (cat. no. 141). The blunt, primitive quality of Pippin's work varies sharply from the technical naturalism of Hovenden's, Pippin, a self-taught black artist, rejected art schools and the sort of academic standards Hovenden embraced, for he believed that "it seems impossible for another to teach one of art." The artist based this painting (one of three he did of John Brown) on his mother's eyewitness account. Pippin's hard-edged style conveys the crystalline nature of that December day. Stark, leafless trees not only indicate the season but also reinforce the sense of impending death. Seated on his own coffin, John Brown rides to his execution in a wagon drawn by two white horses; he passes before a crowd of solemn bystanders. The only black person in the scene, a tensely grim woman who turns her back to the episode, may be the artist's mother. Action within the composition is minimal, creating a feeling of grave stillness.
Like the Revolution and the War of 1812, the Civil War offered the artist a wealth of subjects to render. Examples presented here range from Xanthus Smith's monumental battle scene Final Assault on Fort Fisher, N.C. to the small, intimate view of A Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave by Winslow Homer.
Like Thomas Birch's Perry's Victory on Lake Erie, Smith's Final Assault on Fort Fisher, N.C. of 1873 (cat. no. 149) presents a panorama of a naval battle. Like Birch, Smith rendered his scene with a great deal of historical accuracy; however, whereas Birch had little nautical experience and relied on the information of others, Smith had witnessed such action, having served on the staff of the Union admiral S. F. Du Pont and with Admiral David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay. In his composition, Smith chronicles the final Union attack on Fort Fisher, the large fortification erected by the Confederacy to protect a favorite harbor of blockade runners at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The artist's scene surveys the thunderous shelling inflicted by ironclads and other Union vessels. Smith, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy and contributed to the annual exhibitions from 1856 to 1887, painted this work, as well as three other Civil War scenes, for Joseph Harrison. Harrison's collection, strong in historical paintings and portraiture, came to the Pennsylvania Academy as two gifts -- one in 1878, the other in 1912.
William Trego's Battery of Light Artillery en Route (cat. no. 154), winner of the first Toppan Prize, awarded by the Pennsylvania Academy in 1882, exemplifies the academic style which characterized the artist's more than two hundred battle paintings. Trego, who became an authority on military uniforms, valued fidelity to fact and attention to detail. The high degree of realism he achieved is astonishing since he was crippled from infancy and had to work painfully with paralyzed hands. Throughout his career Trego stressed draughtsmanship and academic correctness. "Why should not the Academy be Academic?" he asked Edward H. Coates, president of the Pennsylvania Academy. Prior to studying in Paris with Adolphe W. Bouguereau and Tony Robert Fleury, Trego spent three years at the Pennsylvania Academy under Thomas Eakins. But his relationship with Eakins was not pleasant; he later remarked: "Fortunately for myself I was drilled in the principles of drawing in my father's studio before I went to the Academy, so that I was able to some extent to brave the sarcasm and neglect of Eakens [sic] " Ironically, it was Fairman Rogers, a staunch supporter of Eakins's teachings, who purchased Trego's painting and presented it to the Pennsylvania Academy.
Winslow Homer's well-known Prisoners from the Front of 1866 (cat. no. 134) portrays, as does Smith's Final Assault on Fort Fisher, the conflict between North and South, Now, however, the confrontation is personal and psychological, rather than anonymous and physical. Homer created a scene of tense contemplation rather than bombastic violence. As the three captured Rebels eye him, an assured Union officer coolly appraises his prisoners. A disparity exists between the disheveled appearance of the captives and the orderliness of their captor. In this scene of historical genre, the Rebels display not only three different ages, but also three dissimilar attitudes toward their common enemy: the boy seems anxious, the old man humble, and the young soldier proud, possibly defiant. The depiction of the psychological gulf between this last Confederate and the Union soldier in large part accounted for the work's immediate success as an expression of the unbridgeable difference between North and South.
Another painting by Homer, A Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave (cat. no. 135) , also portrays a contemplative moment, now intimate rather than tense. As in Prisoners from the Front, the artist's emphasis is on the human element of war. In this small painting, Homer offers a poigant interpretation of the Civil War. Even more, the introspective soldier effectively becomes a universal figure contemplating the consequences of man's inhumanity to man.
Also interpreting the tragedy of combat, contemporary artist Edwin Dickinson created a specter of the Civil War in Shiloh of 1940 (cat. no. 126). The title, evocative rather than narrative, refers to the bloody battle waged in Tennessee in 1862. Eerie lighting and the crumpling of the drapery and the body (a self-portrait) create a haunting image of death.
William H. Johnson's Lincoln at Gettysburg III, painted about 1939-12 (cat. no. 137), treats an episode of national significance: Lincoln at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. In rendering the gaunt figure of Lincoln, Johnson employed a primitive style similar to that of another black artist, Horace Pippin. However, unlike Pippin, Johnson had a solid academic training and consciously moved to a more "naive" style in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His aim was "to give, in simple and stark form, the story of the Negro as he has existed." Certainly, a work treating a famous event in the life of the Great Emancipator had special meaning for a black artist. Lincoln at Gettysburg III is one of three sketches which may have been preparatory drawings for a mural which was never completed. Johnson's imaginative interpretation of the event derives its appeal and power from the artist's ability to create a viable mythic scene with the simplest of forms.
The Civil War, in effect, served as the last great subject of American history painting. During the war Matthew Brady and his crews demonstrated the camera's effectiveness and established photography as the medium for recording contemporary history. While paintings of historical events after the Civil War do exist, American history painting was largely eclipsed by the utilization of the camera.
As recorders and interpreters, American artists have rendered American history in a variety of ways. Compositions range from the heroic and monumental to those more sentimental, anecdotal, and even humorous in nature. Regardless of their form, visual interpretations of American history have served numerous significant and vital purposes: honoring and glorifying the United States and its patriots; conveying ideals to posterity; and providing elevating examples of virtue. Most importantly, however, historical art has assisted in creating and sustaining a sense of national identity and uniqueness.
About the author
Mark Thistlethwaite, Professor of Art History at Texas Christian University. His TCU bio reveals that he "holds the Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History. Having earned degrees in art history from the University of California at Santa Barbara (B.A. and M.A.) and University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D), he specializes in the art of the United States, while also teaching courses in contemporary art, modern and postmodern architecture, and the history of graphic design. As a teacher, he has received TCU's Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Honors Program's 'Professor of the Year' Award, and a Mortar Board 'Preferred Prof.' As a scholar, he has published books and articles on nineteenth century and contemporary art, particularly on the subject of history painting. He is actively involved in the area art museums as a lecturer and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Visiting Committee of the Amon Carter Museum. Dr. Thistlethwaite currently serves on, and has chaired, Fort Worth's Art Commission."
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 30, 2008, with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The permission was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2008. Mr. Boyle's essay pertains to In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805 - 1976, which was on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1976 as a special Bicentennial exhibition.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Barbara Katus, Rights and Reproduction Manager of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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