Art. History. Culture.
It’s World Cup time, and the American Outlaws are helping spread soccer fever like a hazardous contagion. I love me some futbol and was thrilled four years ago when Spain became world champion and then repeated their Euro championship in 2012. But Spain has already shit the bed and support of the USA is above all the priority. It’s great to see the momentum the game is taking on, little by little, in the United States. If only we could eliminate all the ridiculous flopping some of these guys do… they should seriously be fined for it. It’s not the “beautiful game” when that stuff goes on. Anyway, with national pride comes cultural pride, and art is a pillar of culture. In honor of the team representing the stars and stripes, this article gives you a few of America’s most iconic works of art to further enhance your patriotism. Get excited.
This painting is just so great. Where do we even begin? Perhaps a word on John Singleton Copley – a name you probably recognize but you’re not sure why. Copley (1738-1815) left a lasting legacy as a portrait artist but did his fair share of history painting as well. Originally from Boston, Copley was one of the most influential painters of colonial America. He was known for bringing a combination of realism and idealism to his works. He studied human expressions carefully and is fully concerned with conveying them. His art also shows influences of Romanticism at times, which is evident in Watson and the Shark. This work is based an actual event. Brook Watson, future merchant and Lord Mayor of London, is pictured at the age of fourteen during his days as a young ship crew member. On this day he was alone, swimming in a harbor in Havana, Cuba when attacked by a shark. As the story goes, the shark took a chunk out of Watson’s right calf on the first attack. The shark then attacked a second time, completely biting off Watson’s right foot. Watson was then rescued by his shipmates before the shark came back for more. He survived the attack, but had to have his right leg amputated below the knee. The heroic rescue of Watson by his shipmates is immortalized in Copley’s painting.
To spare the viewer the cringing effects of the grotesque, Watson’s mutilated leg is painted below the surface of the water, hidden under the waves. Only a slight hint of a dark cloud surrounding the knee indicates any blood or gore. Watson floats on his back with his arm outstretched toward a rope that a shipmate has tossed to him. The shark is catapulting itself toward its panicked victim. There are a few errors in the physical features of Copley’s shark; its fins and tail are not quite right nor is the shape of the head or the hugely curved nostrils. Despite these errors, Copley’s shark still passes as a horrific monster with angry yellow eyes and a fiercely threatening mouth, open wide for another attack with its razor sharp teeth. Though we know Watson was successfully rescued by his shipmates, we can’t help but feel he is doomed here. Copley has heightened the intensity of the moment by depicting the shark in extremely close proximity to Watson, making his escape to the boat, which is equally as close, seem entirely unlikely. Behind Watson and the shark the boat full of crew members each struggle to do something to help. Two men lean over the edge of the boat reaching as far as they can to pull Watson out while another man in the boat holds one of their shirts to prevent him from falling in too. Four other men position themselves with oars to keep the boat steady. A Cuban man stands upright to cast a rope to Watson. Another young man has jumped up to the boat’s edge to launch a harpoon into the beast. The entire scene of action is in the foremost plane of the composition, incredibly close to the viewer. Nothing of concern is in the background, which seems relatively calm compared to the drama going on in the foreground. Note the incredible array of emotions that Copley has captured in his figures to convey such drama in the expressions of worry among the men in the boat, the determination of the two men leaning over its edge as well as the harpoon-wielding boy and Watson’s extreme panic as he reaches for the rope in desperation. Each face is so distinct they are believably based on real people.
A study of the work of John Singleton Copley cannot exclude his fantastic portrait of American icon Paul Revere. The famous patriot is best known for his role in the American Revolution of alerting the militia that British forces were approaching in the battles of Concord and Lexington. But before joining the war and shouting “THE BRITISH ARE COMING!!!” Paul Revere was a successful silversmith living in Boston.
Copley has pictured the American hero, not in the climactic moment of his military story, but in an intimate portrait emphasizing his wisdom and skill. He sits resting his elbows on a table, holding a small silver teapot in one hand. His other hand supports his chin in a pose that almost recalls the head-in-hands positions conveying melancholic genius often found in Renaissance and Baroque portraits of famous intellectuals. Wearing shirtsleeves and a waistcoat, Revere seems to have been scrutinizing his work, as indicated by the smith tools on the table in front of him, but meets the viewer’s eye as if suddenly interrupted in the process. It is a humble scene but drama is added in the tenebrist light (intense contrast in light and shadow), completely darkening the background and intensifying the importance of the man and his craft. Copley also shows a highly skilled depiction of texture in the smooth reflective surface of the silver teapot. With this scene of Revere at work, Copley has given a bit of insight into the American dream in that any man, however humble his craft, is capable of heroism.
Speaking of heroism, the subject was almost always aligned with images of America’s first president, George Washington. For the purposes of our patriotism, I include this famous canvas:
Washington Crossing the Delaware commemorates the surprise attack on the Hessians (German soldiers in service of the British) at the Battle of Trenton during the American Revolutionary War. In severe weather, at dawn, General Washington lead his troops through the icy Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey, for the attack. The composition depicts the group of boats maneuvering through the treacherous river, dodging boulders of ice, as Washington looks ahead positioned upright in the boat in a determined stance. The boat’s other passengers represent the various American colonies with men of Scottish decent, African decent and Native American decent. Some have even interpreted the androgynous looking figure in red to be a woman to possibly represent the female role in the Revolution. Lieutenant James Monroe, future fifth President of the United States, stands next to Washington in the boat, supporting the American flag propped above the soldiers wrapped up in the wind. This is a highly romanticized representation, made so by the vastness of the river, the danger of the large ice and the dense clouds. Washington and Monroe fix their gazes forward with determination, heroically refusing to be thwarted by the danger.
Another iconic work of art, so famous that it has practically gained the recognition equal to the likes of the Mona Lisa, is of course American Gothic. Grant Wood’s masterpiece, if you can call it that, has been parodied so much, people even strike the pose in their wedding photos (I know from experience, my sister and brother-in-law did it). American Gothic has become a staple of Americana and pop culture. Beyond this painting’s fame, do people even appreciate what it means? You’re about to.
Grant Wood is from Iowa, my neighboring state, and he observed the house depicted in the background of this painting while driving around in Eldon, Iowa. The title of the painting stems from the architectural style of the house in the background, known as Rural Gothic. This style is essentially a low scale version of Gothic Revival, often characterized by a featured window with a pointed arch. When describing the painting, Wood has said that he simply painted the kind of people he imagined would live in that house. The couple shown is a farmer and his daughter, a spinster, in their traditional gender-dictating roles; the man with the pitchfork is responsible for labor, the women in the floral apron is responsible for domestic affairs. Both look thoroughly miserable. Their attitude is the reason why this painting was received horribly by Midwesterners when released. It is also why there is often an interpretation of this painting as an old fashioned funerary or mourning portrait after Victorian era customs. But don’t let this misery dampen your patriotism! American Gothic is an example of how the genre of Regionalism honors our roots as hard-working, self-starting free people. The American dream, again, that people can establish a home and sustain their families independently is represented here. It is the pioneer spirit, if you will. Wood’s work keeps that dream alive, by showing scenes realistic in subject matter, insisting that this is not a parody of Midwestern culture but a tribute in appreciation of it. Indeed, the artist has said that his travels to Europe enhanced his appreciation of his Iowan roots. So a little studying of this painting and now you realize it screams ‘MURICA! You’re welcome.
If none of this gets you pumped and patriotic, watch this American Outlaws World Cup commercial, and then you’ll be pumped like a Reebok.
And now this. With the bagpipes. I mean, damn.