The memory of every war includes that of the old men who start them, stretching back before the conflagration, and the young men who fight them, encompassing decades of trauma and mythmaking after the last shots have been fired. Still, it’s slightly shocking to see the old Revolutionary-era leaders who began the War of 1812 memorialized in paint, while at least one of its young heroes (Zachary Taylor, who went on to be president) is seen in a mid-19th century daguerreotype. If you look at this war through a wide-angle lens, it encompasses not just the political events suggested by the title of a National Portrait Gallery exhibition — “1812: A Nation Emerges” — but also several more momentous revolutions, in science, commerce and art.
Consider Gilbert Stuart, one of the first reputable American portrait artists, who painted the likeness of President James Madison, on whose watch the war was fought. Stuart spent decades cranking out diligent, competent and occasionally near-great paintings. Stuart’s early works, many of them made in Newport, R.I., are old-fashioned daubings, stiff-bodied Lego-people with moon faces. After almost 20 years in the British Isles, he would return to America and create the famous 1796-97 Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, a version of which Dolley Madison would save from the British burning of the White House in 1814. Dolley herself was painted by Stuart (on display in this exhibition) and lived long enough to sit for Mathew Brady, whose daguerreotypes presented her as a living fossil of the nation’s naissance.