History, History Column

The Art of a Nation

by ©2021 Sarah Becker

The Art of a Nation

Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman

“The art of a nation is one of its most refining influences, and is the highest expression of its civilization and culture,” The New York Times wrote in 1918.  “Artistic endeavor must be preserved, for the history of a nation cannot be written without due regard to its artistic attainments: in many cases the art of a nation is the only thing that has come down to us.”

August is Art Appreciation month and however cultural antiquities are defined—as art and or architecture—drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture—monuments and or buildings—destruction is often associated with belligerent behavior.  American history offers several examples of cultural destruction, including the British burning of Washington in 1814.

Whether the loss is associated with the War of 1812, World Wars I&II, China’s Cultural Revolution, ISIS, or the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol the resulting devastation is undeniable.

“Damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol building was largely limited to shattered glass and broken furniture; the U.S. Capitol Rotunda doors; blue paint tracked through the hallways and graffiti,” The New York Times reported.  “Statues including Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, murals, and historic benches were damaged, as were several paintings.  Chemical residue was found on two presidents portraits.”

The events of January 6, 2021, were “difficult for the American people and extremely hard for all of us on campus to witness,” Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton then said.  Fortunately, “the eight monumental paintings in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, including The Baptism of Pocahontas, were assessed by a professional conservator following the assault and no significant damage was found.”

Alexandria-born artist John Gadsby Chapman’s 12’ by 18’ oil on canvas—The Baptism of Pocahontas—was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on November 30, 1840, and remains on permanent display.

“This painting depicts the ceremony in which Pocahontas, daughter of the influential Algonkian chief Powhatan, was baptized,” the Architect of the Capitol explained.  “It took place…in the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent.  Pocahontas is thought to be the English colonies earliest native convert to Christianity.”

“The figures of Pocahontas and the officiating minister are given prominence by their placement, their bright white clothing, and the light that shines upon them,” The Architect of the Capitol continued.  “Pocahontas kneels on the top level of a stepped dais, her head bowed and her hands clasped before her.  Reverend Alexander Whiteaker raises his eyes and his left hand, while his right hand rests on the baptismal font. John Rolfe, Pocahontas’s future husband, stands behind her.”  An engraving of the painting appears on the 1863 and 1875 First Charter $20 National Bank Notes.

Alexandria has fostered many accomplished artists: conceivably no one more talented than John Gadsby Chapman [1808-1889].  The son of Charles T. Chapman and Sarah M. Gadsby, he was named for his maternal grandfather—Alexandria and District of Columbia tavern owner John Gadsby.  An Alexandria Academy attendee, Chapman first pursued a career in law.  Then, on the advice of artists George Cooke [history painter] and Charles Bird King [portraitist]—and with the financial help of friends—he enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

John Gadsby Chapman painted his first successful work in 1830, Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Wilderness.  The biblical painting draws from Genesis.  “And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken.  For Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age.  And Abraham called his son Isaac.”

In 1831 Chapman displayed his art in Alexandria.  A traveling exhibit he also showed his work in Philadelphia, Boston and Richmond.  Soon after Chapman toured the Commonwealth in search of new ideas: history paintings especially.

Chapman visited James Madison’s Montpelier and sketched it.  He painted George Washington’s boyhood homes; Washington’s Mount Vernon bed chamber, and the family of Mrs. John Augustine Washington.  His early Jamestown history paintings “The Crowning of Powhatan” and “The Warning of Powhatan” were later exhibited in New York’s National Academy of Design.

In 1834, Chapman painted a full-length portrait of Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett. Crockett, a compelling anti-Jacksonian, was elected to the 23rd Congress and completing his final term.  The painting “showed the Colonel standing among three of his hounds, left arm crooked to accommodate his rifle.”  The historical work was eventually purchased by the State of Texas and hung in the capitol at Austin: in memory of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

Not yet satisfied with his success, Chapman left Alexandria and moved to New York to become an illustrator.  As luck would have it, in 1835 Chapman illustrated James Kirke Paulding’s Life of Washington.  The work secured his place in the National Academy of Design.  Commissions continued, including A Christmas Gift from Fairy Land (1838), The Poets of America as edited by John Keese (1840), and Harper’s Illuminated Bible (1843-1846).  He produced 1,400 engravings for the latter.

No commission captured John Gadsby Chapman’s interpretive interest like The Baptism of Pocahontas—his best-known work.  He secured his 1837 Congressional commission in the same year Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his American Scholar speech to Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Society.  “Perhaps the time is already come, when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertion of mechanical skill,” Emerson said.

Chapman painted the historical oil on canvas in the loft of a D.C. barn located on G Street, N.W.  The $10,000 then paid barely covered his production costs.

John Gadsby Chapman

By 1850 John Gadsby Chapman had moved his family to Rome.  Chapman’s renderings of the Italian countryside sold well until the Civil War.  Wartime trans-Atlantic travel was treacherous and—like the South’s CSS Alabama in the 1864 Battle of Cherbourg—American tourism took a hit.  Chapman’s son Conrad left Europe and his family to fight for the Confederacy.

“A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being,” Sun Tzu wrote in his 1st-2nd century The Art of War.  Union General William T. Sherman’s 1864 capture of Confederate Atlanta, his March to the Sea, confirmed Sun Tzu’s theory.  More recently rioters were seen carrying the Confederate flag when entering the U.S. Capitol Rotunda: perhaps in support of the South’s Lost Cause.  Or pardoned felon; retired three-star General and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s quasi-calls for a coup.

Artistically speaking, in the 1860s the Civil War years, realism was giving way to impressionism.  Impressionists relied on optical phenomena to explain the artist’s reality.  Artists like Edouard Manet preferred vibrant displays, pulsating patches of color and dynamic brush movement, to finished description.  Compare Chapman’s use of light in The Baptism of Pocahontas with Manet’s lighting effects in the later Battle of the USS Kearsage and CSS Alabama.  Both are history paintings.

The United States presented its Fourteen Points, President Wilson’s WWI principles for peace on January 8, 1918.  The Points included a general association of nations—the League of Nations—as well as a League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.

In 1922 the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation established an International Museums Office [IMO].  Germany’s power was again on the rise and in October 1936 the IMO issued a Convention for the Protection of Historic Buildings and Works of Art in Times of War.  The report asked that “for the protection of art, competent authorities everywhere put their national art on a war footing.”

Among the IMO’s recommendations: the building of bombproof shelters for portraits and restoration of the medieval sanctuary system for statues; protection measures to insure, in the event of serial bombardment, the safety of architectural monuments more fragile parts [stained glass windows, bas-reliefs and other sculptural features], and shelters or depositories to which movable objects can be protected, sites declared strictly neutral to “serve as a last asylum for humanity’s laws.”

During World War II the U.S. Army worked hard to locate lost property, especially art.  In the 1940s Chancellor Adolph Hitler—a former painter and self-proclaimed art critic—was determined “to assemble for Germany the greatest treasure of European art.”

Under the German law of July 22, 1941, the pro-Nazi Vichy government set as its objective the elimination of “all Jewish influence in the national economy.”  The seizure of property—gold, bank accounts, insurance, and art—followed.  Tracking was not straight forward in part because the IMO gave way to the United Nations, UNESCO and the International Council of Museums [ICOM] in 1946.

Today the art world is focused on the Middle East.   Like Nazi Germany, the Islamic State was/is involved in cleansing.  Many of ISIS’ military tactics are decidedly East Asian.  Whether it is “the use of military weapons or wholesale decapitation, the end in view is to get rid of wicked people…,” Sun Tzu said.

On May 28, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution known also as Security Council resolution 2199.  It was presented jointly by Germany and Iraq, and co-sponsored by 91 member states.  Said UNESCO:

“The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime—it is used as a tactic of war, in a strategy of cultural cleansing that calls on us to review and renew the means by which we wish to respond and to defeat violent extremism.”

“In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot…many Republicans agreed on the need for an independent commission to investigate the attack,” The Week noted on June 11.  “Last week, however, a Republican filibuster killed a bill creating such a commission.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s justification was that the proposed commission would be ‘slanted’ against Republicans, though it would have featured five Republican and five Democratic appointees.”

“The real explanation,” as Senator John Cornyn of Texas admitted, “was that the GOP doesn’t want to give Democrats ‘a political platform’ from which to make the 2022 midterm elections ‘a referendum on President Trump’ and his Big Lie that the election was stolen.”

“We’ve had commissions to investigate crises large and small—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11,” The Week continued.  “For the GOP to block an investigation into the only assault in U.S. history on the peaceful transfer of power is a ‘grim sign for American democracy.’”

Perhaps the fact that Chapman’s The Baptism of Pocahontas survived the assault undamaged is a positive sign.  History, Emerson said, is a record—a factual record.  Whether history is recorded by pen or brush, Chapman’s painting tells a truthful tale.  Just maybe the U.S. House of Representatives will see it as a reminder to conduct its ongoing January 6 Committee investigation honestly.  Absent half-truths and partisan pap: tall tales and digital yarns.

“John Gadsby Chapman was an American painter and illustrator, now all too little remembered,” John Walker wrote in 1962.  “[The National Gallery of Art] believes that his achievement, intimate and delicate in character, deserves more recognition than it has had.” Chapman died in 1889, the same year retired Union General Benjamin Harrison [IN-R] was inaugurated the 23rd President of the United States.  And Confederate President Jefferson Davis died.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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