War of 1812: The National Portrait Gallery’s ‘A Nation Emerges’ Reviewed

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.

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Unfortunately, not much is made of the dizzying range of representational styles on display in the exhibition: primitive lead-pencil drawings (a sketch showing the battle lines at Bladensburg), overzealous partisan cartoons with crudely drawn speech bubbles, and meticulous, academically proper portraiture. Nor is much attention devoted to the rich but now mostly forgotten iconography of these works, the liberty caps, the figure of Brother Jonathan (a symbol of the early United States), or the medals and other symbols that appear in many of the portraits. The focus, rather, is on the events and personalities of the war. It is an interesting and engaging exhibition, but it could have been much more so if history and artistic practice had been integrated throughout.

There is something almost incestuous about the elites who led the country into what some deemed a dangerous folly and others considered a second war of independence. Ties of marriage, friendship and political alliance bound the American political class, and familiar names crop up with the uncanny and slightly surreal happenstance of soap opera. In 1804, Stuart painted Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton who, along with her husband, William Thornton (an architect of the Capitol), was close to the Madisons. In 1835, Anna was forced to beg President Andrew Jackson (another 1812 war hero) to spare the life of a slave who had threatened her while drunk, arguing against the prosecutor Francis Scott Key, who penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

Stuart’s portrait of Anna is remarkably similar to his portrait of Dolley Madison, not just because they are wearing similar low-busted dresses, wearing the same half-coy, half vacant expression, sitting in the same position and occupying the canvass in roughly the same way. The problem is in large part due to Stuart, who was an often-unimaginative painter with an obsession with noses and a tendency to use the same lighting tricks again and again.

For some reason, however, there are organ pipes lightly painted into a round frame in the background of Stuart’s picture of Anna. This is exactly the sort of detail that makes nearly identical portraits suddenly interesting, but nothing is explained. (It may be a reference to the painter’s origins as a highly skilled church organist, or to a musical instrument invented by William Thornton.)

One is glad for a little break from Stuart’s prim monotony. Especially apealing is an engaging portrait by Asher Durand of Maria DeHart Mayo Scott, married to 1812 hero Winfield Scott (who went on to devise the basic strategy for strangling the South in the Civil War). Dominating most of the other portraits in the exhibitions is a very polished if slightly dull full-length image of the British officer George Cockburn, a driving force behind the British burning of Washington. Painted by John James Halls, a British portrait artist with a touch of romanticism in his style, the Cockburn portrait (made sometime around 1817) conflates time, showing a calm, well-dressed man resting his sword on the ground, as Washington burns (years earlier) in the background. Painting would yield to photography as a medium for portraiture in the 19th century, but when an overwrought, idealized and ideologically loaded résumé of a man’s life was needed, it was a hard medium to beat.

Little is said about these works as paintings, and virtually nothing about the painters themselves. And the curators are cautious about making definitive statements about the war’s necessity or merit. “The British won most of the land battles, successfully blockaded American ports, and stymied American attempts to invade Canada,” reads the introductory wall text. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended this rather quixotic affair, essentially reset the clock back to the conditions that existed before the war began, with no official resolution to the problem of British interference in American shipping and commerce.

But after Andrew Jackson beat the British in New Orleans in 1815, with peace restored and the country still in one piece despite the calamity of what happened to Washington, Americans embraced the idea of victory, and the war was rich in nationalistic lore. History lovers will thrill to see an original copy of the Treaty of Ghent. Naval buffs will be sated with large canvases of sea battles (the United States tended to do better on the water). In the celebrity relics department, there is a red dress once owned by Dolley Madison. It may have been made from the White House velvet curtains that she supposedly saved along with the Washington portrait.

The war did have its winners, of sorts. The Canadians survived invasion and defined themselves as a nation independent of their upstart southern neighbor’s perpetual need for more territory. And then there were the losers: Native Americans won battles and produced legendary figures such as Tecumseh, but in the end they lost their British allies and were soon defenseless against the territorial expansion of the United States. The war also produced Jackson, whose brutal policy toward Native Americans is as shameful a chapter in American history as any then or since.

One might have ended the exhibition there, with a discussion of the Native American experience and Ferdinand Pettrich’s romanticized and languid marble statue of the dying Tecumseh a reminder of how much was being lost. But American history can only incorporate the facts of ethnic cleansing and genocide as footnotes to a happier and more heroic arc. So the exhibition ends with canals and commerce, the burgeoning of industry, and a first-edition 1828 copy of Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language.”

Cue the “limitless possibilities” music. Except for one thing, another daguerreotype encountered near the end of the exhibition, this one of a Seneca chief known as Blacksnake. He was one of the few Indian leaders who sided with the United States during the war. A handwritten note in the small album that contains the image says: “Died Dec. 26, 1859, aged 117 or 120 years.” That was an exaggeration—he was probably around 106 — or perhaps part of the mythologizing of the Indian, an ascription of Old Testament longevity to the Noble Savage.

The image of Blacksnake is powerful, not just for the lined and sad face of its subject, but because it captures him in western dress, with a white collar, cravat and jacket. Under Jackson (whose equestrian statue still rears up on two legs in front of the White House), Native Americans were offered a choice between assimilation and removal, though they were mostly coerced into the latter, and even those who had tried to assimilate were afforded little safety of life or property. Blacksnake, whose image was captured by an industrial process rather than the craft of painting, has eyes that look almost blind, which only adds to the sense that his image is floating in the watery ether of time, the last trace of one era just barely captured by the technology of a new one.

1812: A Nation Emerges

is on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 27, 2013. For more information visit www.npg.si.edu

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