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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Of Arms and Artists
Of Arms and Artists
The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes
by Paul Staiti

Paperback (19 Sep 2017), 400 pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
ISBN-13: 9781632864666
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

A fascinating look at how the art world viewed the American Revolution, and how their work still effects the way we view those events today.

The images accompanying the founding of the United States--of honored Founders, dramatic battle scenes, and seminal moments--gave visual shape to Revolutionary events and symbolized an entirely new concept of leadership and government. Since then they have endured as indispensable icons, serving as historical documents and timeless reminders of the nation's unprecedented beginnings.

As Paul Staiti reveals in Of Arms and Artists, the lives of the five great American artists of the Revolutionary period--Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart--were every bit as eventful as those of the Founders with whom they continually interacted, and their works contributed mightily to America's founding spirit. Living in a time of breathtaking change, each in his own way came to grips with the history being made by turning to brushes and canvases, the results often eliciting awe and praise, and sometimes scorn. Ever since the passing of the last eyewitnesses to the Revolution, their imagery has connected Americans to 1776, allowing us to interpret and reinterpret the nation's beginning generation after generation. The collective stories of these five artists open a fresh window on the Revolutionary era, making more human the figures we have long honored as our Founders, and deepening our understanding of the whirlwind out of which the United States emerged.

1
Art and the American Revolution

Patriots in Revolutionary America were finally feeling optimistic in January of 1779. They had not forgotten the summer three years before when the British outmanned, outfought, and overwhelmed the Continental Army in New York, forcing General George Washington and his soldiers to flee, first to New Jersey and then to the banks of the Delaware River. They still had vivid memories of the invasion and occupation of Philadelphia, the capital city, in 1777, and the subsequent escape of the Second Continental Congress into the rural Pennsylvania countryside, followed by the wintering of Washington's army at Valley Forge, where unremitting disease, exposure, and malnutrition ravaged the soldiers, killing 2,500. In those years, America's future as an independent country was anything but auspicious.

But in 1778, history seemed to be turning in the Patriots' direction. Benjamin Franklin successfully persuaded France to forge a powerful military alliance committing the Versailles court to "make all the efforts in its Power" to uphold the liberty, sovereignty, and independence of the United States. That opened the doors to the formidable French army and navy, laden with troops, commanders, and cannons, as well as an ancient and active hatred of Britain. Fearing this new alliance would escalate the war into a global conflict, the British evacuated their stronghold in Philadelphia and hastily sent envoys to the Continental Congress to sue for peace. In June of 1778, Washington broke camp at Valley Forge and took back Philadelphia. In November, a freshly buoyant Congress rejected the British peace overture and declared that from then on any settlement of the war would have to be on America's terms.

Sensing the tide of war had shifted in the northern states, Pennsylvania passed a resolution on January 18, 1779, to honor "those who have rendered their country distinguished services, by preserving their resemblances in statues and paintings." This, the Supreme Executive Council added, was the sort of thing "the wisest, freest and bravest nations" do "in their most virtuous times." Seizing the moment, they appropriated money for a life-size, full-length portrait of Washington, the commander-in-chief, to be installed in the Council Chamber of the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall.

The portrait—the first piece of public art in the United States— would be an enduring acknowledgment of "how much the liberty, safety and happiness of America in general, and of Pennsylvania in particular, is owing to His Excellency General WASHINGTON and the brave men under his command."1 It would stand as "a mark of the great respect which they bear to His Excellency," and as the Council made clear in its resolution, there was hope it would accelerate the American war effort by inspiring others "to tread in the same glorious and disinterested steps, which lead to publick happiness and private honour." Two days after the resolution was passed, Washington graciously assented to the Council's request to sit for a portrait and let it be known that their sentiments had made "the deepest impression on my mind."

Charles Willson Peale, Self-Portrait, 1777–78

The person to be entrusted with carrying out the commission was Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia. Painter, militiaman, assemblyman, and ardent Patriot, Peale had impeccable credentials for the job, both as an artist and as a political and military man. He had not only fought at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, but also had visited Valley Forge, where he painted himself looking remarkably cheerful, given the hunger, disease, and despair afflicting the troops that winter. After Washington reclaimed Philadelphia in 1778, Peale was put in charge of identifying Loyalists in the city and then confiscating their estates, sometimes in a heartless way. He was so hated by some factions in the city that during the last two years of the war he had to walk through the streets with a cane made of seasoned ash, named Hercules, so that he could protect himself from assault.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Of Arms and Artists by Paul Staiti. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Staiti. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A lucid portrait of the artists who gave visual shape to American Revolutionary events and molded a young country's national aesthetic.

Print Article

In the late eighteenth-century, the United States of America was still an emerging country, established by the high ideals of republicanism and liberty for all, making the people as a whole sovereign over their land and their home. Artists were a vital part of this burgeoning philosophy. They were the means to record a revolution, to present victories as stunning examples of the young country's growing greatness and to illustrate its commanding identity as a power to be reckoned with.

Paul Staiti has written about, discussed, and co-curated exhibits devoted to the topic of American artists. In Of Arms and Artists, he presents a compelling look at the lives and work of five gifted artists of the American Revolution: Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart. Staiti pays particular attention to these subjects because their work was more than just a recording of key battles of the revolution. The portraits they painted were classic tools of propaganda, with subtle keys and images hidden in various parts of the painting.

The title, Of Arms and Artists, suggests and implicates the equivalent power of both weapons and works of art. It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword. This can also be true for the artist's paint brush or the sculptor's chisel. By the mere size of the work, or the inclusion of classical elements like statuary and classic texts, the artist defines his work as important, something the viewer should take seriously, and read intuitively.

Throughout the centuries, the visual arts in particular were a tool to describe historic events of national importance, and to illustrate wars and battles of significance. In essence, art can be used as a political tool—instructing people on how to perceive a specific event or person, thus manipulating the general population to accept or reject certain ideals. Peale's portrait of John Beale Bordley, for example, depicts a standing image of the man, leaning on an open book on a pedestal. The words "Nolumus Leges Angliae mutari" ("We are unwilling that the laws of England be changed") are clear and a statue in the background is dressed in classical robes and standing on a pedestal which bears the words, "Lex Angli" (English Justice). As Staiti points out, the artist's intent was to make "a provocative statement of American rights in the face of British tyranny."

Revolutionary artists were encouraged to step away from the British style and develop their own. They looked further back in history and adopted many of the artistic and political ideals of the ancient Roman Empire. The Romans used art and architecture to promote the ideal of power and self-confidence. The poses of Caesar, standing boldly looking off into the distance at all that he controlled, was the Classicism that American Revolutionary artists recognized as a style they wanted to emulate. Thus, they posed their subjects in such a way as to have them look like the great Roman rulers of the distant past. For the five artists featured in this book, the positioning — the pose of the individual (or individuals) being painted were statements of the bold confidence that would (and did) lead to the country's success in gaining its independence.

Perhaps the most defining chapter is the one that discusses the Founding Fathers' recognition of the power behind this art and how they could use it to their benefit. In particular, Staiti focusses on John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers. Adams saw the danger in art, but he also recognized its "unmatched power to persuade – and thus dupe – citizens into thinking that a tyrant is beneficent, that monarchy is natural, and that an oppressed life is God's will." Adams's beliefs led to his involvement in establishing the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (see 'Beyond the Book'). As Staiti indicates, "art should be, in Adams's view, classical, disciplined, idealistic, historical, accurate, ethical, didactic, inspirations, and devoted to timeless truths. In short, Adams wanted his puritan ethic made into a national aesthetic."

Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes presents another view of history. Art as history and propaganda, this is a vibrant presentation of the lives of artists, during and immediately after the American Revolution. Peale, Copley, West, Trumbull and Stuart, whose lives were also transformed and manipulated through war and peace, are discussed by Staiti in a manner that will enlighten us all on another view of the art that defined a new nation. Through pictures and words, Staiti paints a portrait of these men who were, in their own right, founders of the new nation and the art that would define it.

A fascinating dissertation that will delight American history enthusiasts, academic historians and art historians, as well as general-interest readers.

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Publishers Weekly
Staiti skillfully shows how the Founding Fathers were attuned to the importance of visual art in constructing a public image and how they collaborated with artists to, ultimately, shape history. . . . History buffs and art lovers will enjoy Staiti’s refreshing perspective.

Booklist
Starred Review. Staiti brings new vibrancy and meaning to boldly revolutionary paintings that both commemorate the suffering, conviction, and valor of a specific time and address the timeless struggle for justice and freedom.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Staiti offers an excellent look at an understudied topic: how the art world viewed the American Revolution ... By crafting an informative narrative, Staiti allows readers to learn what meaning can be interpreted from the visual medium ... Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A lively, splendid history that captures the times with insight, acumen, and a juggler's finesse.

Author Blurb Joseph J. Ellis, author of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Seacond American Revolution
Staiti has put both words and pictures together in a graceful book that helps us understand why the American Revolution looks the way it does. Of Arms and Artists sets a new standard for the fusion of art history and political narrative.

Author Blurb William M. Fowler, Jr., author of
Through an artful narrative Paul Staiti links the lives and works of these artists in intimate and fascinating detail. Of Arms and Artists is a delightful and informative tour through the family album of the American Revolution, and while the faces may be familiar, through Staiti's work we gain new insight into the character of the artists, the people they painted, and the cause of Revolution

Print Article

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes focuses on the ideal of a country-in-making and how the arts helped educate and manipulate its political leanings. In this drive for perfection, there was a need, once the Revolution was a success, to continue the young country's unique standing in the world by establishing higher institutions of learning and study, including the now very prominent and highly revered, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

John Adams The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge Massachusetts, is one of the oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers in the United States of America. Founded in 1780, with John Adams (1735-1826) as one of its founding members, the American Academy has championed "scholarship, civil dialogue, and useful knowledge."

As Paul Staiti points out in Of Arms and Artists, what Adams ultimately wanted for art in America was "to simultaneously record history with exactitude and promote American virtue with timeless sentiment." While Adams's ideals might appear lofty enough to be unattainable, the ulterior founding principles of the American Academy were, and remain today, both influential and progressive. "From its beginnings, the Academy has engaged in the critical questions of the day. It has brought together the nation's and the world's most distinguished citizens to address social and intellectual issues of common concern and, above all, to develop ways to translate knowledge into action. Since 1780, Academy members have included both those who discover and advance knowledge and those who apply knowledge to the problems of society. Working together, they have established a legacy of leadership that continues to produce reflective, independent, and pragmatic studies that inform public policy and lead to constructive action."

In the early years, Academy members included distinguished people such as the founding fathers: John Adams (as already mentioned), George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many more. The roster, which includes more than 250 Nobel Laureates, has grown over time; new members are nominated—and voted in— by existing members. Past presidents, scientists and artists of note who have made a significant contribution to their field of study, are all part of the Academy.

The Academy spreads its philosophy by its published literature and also through multiple projects it underwrites in four broad fields: The Humanities, Arts and Education; Science, Engineering and Technology; Global Security and International Affairs; and American Institutions for the Public Good.

Each of these disciplines conducts multiple research projects. For example, the ARISE (Advancing Research in Science and Engineering) project, as part of the Science, Engineering and Technology branch "addressed two issues central to the vitality of America's research enterprise: 1) the support of early-career investigators; and 2) the encouragement of high-risk, high-reward research."

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences continues to influence both the academic and the political world in the United States as well as around the world, by insisting on excellence in all that it does, all that it teaches and all that it studies.

Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull

By Emily-Jane Hills Orford

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