Opinion  December 9, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Looking Back at "Reframed"

COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY.

Mary Pickersgill, Star-Spangled Banner, early 19th century. National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.

Western art history is filled with colorful characters, whose statuses as heroes or villains can change based on the mores of our current society.

Neither Art & Object nor the Reframed column are politically leaning publications. Yet it would be naive not to recognize that we exist in politically charged times.

What did the inaugural Reframed column of 2021 teach us about classical art and modern society?

COURTESY OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The debut Reframed column covered the iconic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, created by Emmanuel Leutze in 1851. Leutze, an immigrant himself, depicted a Native American navigator in Washington’s boat as an homage to the role that indigenous Americans played in the creation of the United States.

Even two years ago, Leutze’s romantic work would hardly be considered controversial.

Yet the protests, riots, and uprisings of 2020 inevitably made patriotism a charged subject.

North Carolina Museum of Art

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Puritan, 1886, cast after 1899.

Bolder still, perhaps, Reframed highlighted the Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1886 monument The Puritan, which still stands in Springfield, Massachusetts. The eight-foot-tall figure honors Samuel Chapin, a politician, and clergyman who blurred the lines between church and state.

Problematic though that was, Chapin’s controversial role created awareness for the need to enshrine religious and political separation in our constitution half a century after he was in power.

What role do works of art play in teaching current society about how far we have come in terms of social progress, and how far we still have to proceed? So often, the small steps of progress made by society are forgotten, even as the large leaps of progress are remembered.

This is an error in our collective memory that Reframed challenged this year.

COURTESY OF THE AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY, WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS.

First known photograph of the Star-Spangled Banner, taken at the Boston Navy Yard, June 21, 1873.

Mary Pickersgill’s Star-Spangled Banner is the most telling of these examples of how progress for the disenfranchised can be made with the support of the powerful. Pickersgill, a young widow and a businesswoman, eschewed remarriage in favor of a career as a feminist.

Major George Armistead of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry commissioned her with a hefty fee to create the iconic flag, which was preserved in a bipartisan initiative led by Hillary Clinton, then first lady, in 1998.

Reframed columns are springboards for thought. Yet that thought does not necessarily need to be focused on the fraught or controversial aspects of our Western culture.

Indeed, in over a decade living in Europe, this author has come to appreciate the European ability to revel in the aesthetic beauty of sublime artworks in a way that we Americans are still learning.

Perhaps it is the Puritans and Calvinists in our history that create a pressure to learn a moral lesson in every single artwork.

Thomas Cole,The Oxbow or View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1863. Oil on canvas. 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm).
COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow or View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1863. Oil on canvas. 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm).

Frederic Edwin Church, The Andes of Ecuador, 1855. Oil on canvas, 59 5/8 x 87 1/2 in. Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
COURTESY REYNOLDA HOUSE MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, AFFILIATED WITH WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY, WINSTON-SALEM, NC., ORIGINAL PURCHASE FUND FROM MARY REYNOLDS BABCOCK FOUNDATION, Z. SMITH REYNOLDS FOUNDATION, ARCA, AND ANNE CANNON FORSYTH. 

Frederic Edwin Church, The Andes of Ecuador, 1855. Oil on canvas, 59 5/8 x 87 1/2 in. Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

Julie Hart Beers, Birches by a Woodland Stream,1908. Oil on board. 26 1/2 in. x 16 3/4 in. (67.3 cm x 42.5 cm). Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
COURTESY OF DAVIS MUSEUM AT WELLESLEY COLLEGE. MUSEUM PURCHASE, THE DOROTHY JOHNSTON TOWNE (CLASS OF 1923) FUND 2019.

Julie Hart Beers, Birches by a Woodland Stream, 1908. Oil on board. 26 1/2 in. x 16 3/4 in. (67.3 cm x 42.5 cm). Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.

Consequently, the Reframed columns on the Hudson River School proved the most challenging to write. It is comparatively easy to write about conflict and controversial works. Far more difficult, it turns out, is mastering the art of writing about the peaceful, the quiet, and the sublime landscapes of a young United States.

Perhaps that is one of the many lessons we can take forward into 2022: amidst all of the turmoil of our times, there is nothing wasteful or wrong in occasionally taking refuge in calm and peaceful works of art.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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