- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

If it’s the Fourth of July, that must be George Washington’s portrait on display — 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, in a new gallery, Arts of the Colonial Americas, celebrating that city’s place at the heart of the nation’s history.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia is displaying 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 and family man and eventually, in Rembrandt Peale’s 1824 “Patriae Pater” painting, achieves near-deity form. Portraits of Washington became 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” recalls the battle that gave this country its national anthem.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the works of a group of American artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Jamie Wyeth, John Alexander and Roy Lichtenstein were represented in a traveling exhibition organized by Washington’s Meridian House to tour Europe and the Middle East. The show “True Colors: Meditation on the American Spirit” opened in Istanbul. It is scheduled to be in Berlin this year on September 11.

“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 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.”

Miss 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 and wondering whether they could be drawn into the conflict — 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 such as Norman Rockwell producing such unforgettable images as his visual renditions of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.” Mr. Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” poster, showing three generations of a cheerful American family 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 such as Frederic Edwin Church and Jasper 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,” the artist turns a night landscape into a symbolic flag. The stars in the sky are copies of the stars in the flag. That too, is patriotic art.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide