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David and Art - "A Painting with Many Topics"

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Sometimes a painting can illustrate more than what’s in it

Much to my surprise, I’ve recently realized that in two of my books I’ve written about the same historic American painting from the 1860s. One book was a history of the National Endowment for the Arts and the other is my latest—a biography of US Navy Admiral George Dewey. These are very different books perhaps needless to say. Or, at least, their focus is very different. When I was writing the chapter of the Dewey book in which the painting appears I don’t think I consciously considered having written about it before. To appear in two different history books is notable—something about this painting was striking me as particularly and distinctively revealing. And it is. The painting reveals what good art can itself reveal about a country.

I want to explore this with you over the next weeks, starting today with the first time I wrote about the painting. This is from my 2008 book Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy.

“In the late 1850s the future of the United States was growing increasingly bleak. As the tumultuous decade drew to an end and the possibility of compromise between North and South seemed more and more elusive, people openly wondered about the future of the Republic. To concerned citizens, the presidential election of 1860 loomed large with the potential of driving circumstances past the point of reconciliation. Even as this crisis approached, however, Congress attended to other, some might have said ‘trivial’ matters. On George Washington's Birthday in 1860 the newly created United States Arts Commission presented a report to president James Buchanan. It recommended an outlay of just under $167,000 on works of art for the capitol building then being remodeled and expanded. Realizing the strains the nation was experiencing, the three-member commission assured the beleaguered president that in times of national dissension the ‘arts afford a strong bond of national sympathy.’”

“Despite the grave problems facing the nation, Congress did not turn a deaf ear to the commission's faith in the power of the arts. National sympathy and unity--especially in the halls of Congress--were sorely needed. Even as the long-feared crisis began, the government commissioned a painting that celebrated the inevitable triumph of nationalism and expansion. The colossal Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, the work of German-born painter Emmanuel Leutze, was to crown the west stairway in the House wing of the capitol.”

So now you know that that’s the painting I’m talking about. Let’s describe it next week. Talk to you then.