Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Artists of the Revolution and The Creation of an American Identity

In 1783 John Adams was in London and commissioned American expat John Singleton Copely to paint his portrait.

Adams was fresh from Paris where, along with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, he had signed the Treaty of Paris. His accomplishments included obtaining recognition of America and negotiating a treaty with the Dutch, plus obtaining a Dutch loan to fund the American war for independence, and establishing the very first American embassy in Amsterdam. He was instrumental in the Provisional Treaty with Britain.

A man must be his own trumpeter Adams had written in a letter. Adams knew his place in history, even if at home and abroad Franklin was everyone's darling.  He deserved a portrait. Copley was to paint an eight-foot tall, full portrait of Adams, full of symbols designating  his place in history.

Art teaches values, Adams knew, and can be used as propaganda, promoting ideals that outlast personal memory.

Upon seeing the impressive portrait Adams realized the vanity of his desire. He left it behind.

Of Arms and Artists by Paul Staiti considers the lives of the great artists of the Revolution in context of their time. I was fascinated by the stories of the artists. Learning about the paintings was enlightening. For instance, on my last visit to the Detroit Art Institute I was thrilled to see Watson and the Shark by Copely. This is a painting often reproduced in books. Statai tells the story behind the painting.

The commissioned painting memorializes the experience of real life Brook Watson. The dramatic painting shows a man in the water reaching for a rope thrown from a boat while a sailor readies to harpoon a shark whose open maw is feet from the unfortunate boy.

The real Watson was a Tory politician who wanted the painting to create a personal identity, eliciting sympathy and connoting courage. He was a British spy who announced that slavery was "merciful and humane."

Americans will recognize famous paintings by these artists. They created the mythos of America.

Charles Willson Peale was an enthusiastic patriot who was a captain in the Pennsylvania militia. He was at the crossing of the Delaware and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton and the fall of Philadelphia to the British. Peale visited Valley Forge, painting miniatures of the officers--not as they were but cheery visions to send home to loved ones. He painted George Washington after the Battle of Princeton.
George Washington, Peale
John Singleton Copley left America to study in Europe. He endeavored for neutrality and painted portraits of Patriots and the British.
Paul Revere, Copley
John Trumbull captured pivotal moments in history. He witness the battle of Bunker Hill and served as an aide to Gen. George Washington. In Paris he was a go-between for Thomas Jefferson, delivering love notes to the married Maria Cosway. His paintings are in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol including the signing of the Declaration of Independence which places historical accuracy secondary to America ideals.
Trumbull, signing of the Declaration
Benjamin West left Pennsylvania for a 'grand tour' to broaden his knowledge of art. He stayed in London as the historical painter to the court of George III. His historical paintings included The Death of General Wolfe.   He painted his close friend in the allegorical Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity From the Sky.
West, Benjamin Franklin
Gilbert Stuart was a master in portraiture, painting over 1,000. He studied under Benjamin West in England. Constantly in debt, he spent the summer of 1789 in  the Marshalsea Prison. His painting of George Washington was saved by Dolley Madison when the British invaded the Capitol.
Stuart, George Washington

Having read a number of books on the Revolution was an asset to understand the historical events of the paintings created by these artists, but enough information is provided by the author for the general reader. I appreciated how the author brought these men to life.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Of Arms and Artists
Paul Staiti
Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication October 18, 2016
$30 hard cover
ISBN 9781632864659

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