Essay on Importance of History in Early American Art

Submitted By KKeesee4
Words: 2326
Pages: 10

American art not only has the ability to provoke a viewer’s imagination but to also tell a story. A painting can have a lot of meanings and can be read just like a book. Even though art does not have same format as words on paper, it still has the capability to send a message. American art can unfold the personal history of someone or transcribe a historical scene onto canvas. Within three different periods of American art, history has been portrayed in many ways. John Singleton Copley’s painting of Nathaniel Sparhawk demonstrates the importance of personal history during the Colonial period. The iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze illustrates how a historical event can promote nationalism and an iconic figure. Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” tells the story of a hero while also making him historically more significant through the application of art. These three paintings manifest the value of history during the time periods of their creation through their subject matters and composition.
At first glance it may seem that Copley’s painting of Nathaniel Sparhawk does not have elements pertaining to history, but in actuality the painting has many subtle clues to the personal history of the subject. A painting does not need a backdrop of a historical battle or event to attribute to telling the history of somebody. During the 1700s it was not enough to get an ordinary painting of yourself done even though having a self-portrait was a luxury in itself. Self-portraits were used in the eighteenth century to illustrate the wealth, importance, and mannerisms that the subject wanted others to know were attributed him or her. Even though ministers during this time declared that flaunting luxury was a sin, it did not stop people during the colony time to want self-portraits of themselves that fabricated their personal history with extravagant clothing, backgrounds, and props (Breen 44). This in retrospect creates the personal history that the subject wanted viewers from that subject’s time period to present time to know of them. The social status of someone was just as important during this time as it is now. The successful painters during the Colonial period were capable of displaying wealthy merchants, colonial elite, and dynamic lawyer’s prosperous and satisfactory lives by mirroring their materialist interests, businesslike behavior, quiet confidence, and level-headed character in the canvas of their painting (Breen 39). Copley does a sufficient job of applying these wanted attributes into Nathaniel Sparhawk’s self-portrait and creating the personal history that the subject desired to endorse themselves too. Even though Staiti states that “Copley’s Nathaniel Sparhawk is purely self-congratulatory” of his success and acquired wealth, the self-portrait is still painting a sense of Sparhawk’s personal history that sells his importance to himself and also vicariously to his family (Staiti 25).
The history of Nathaniel Sparhawk can all be seen in his clothing, pose, emphasis of his weight, and the all over grand scale of the painting. Starting with the clothing that Nathaniel is wearing, it can be seen that he successful. The details Copley put into Nathaniel’s lavish satin outfit, the frills in the cuffs, and the gold-buckled polished shoes show the prosperity that he has acquired during his lifetime. To the uneducated eye it would look like Copley did Sparhawk’s pose just for aesthetics, but it was actually used to gesture some historical attributes to Nathaniel. Initially Nathaniel was just a merchant with not much wealth, but after marrying into the prosperous Pepperell family in 1742 his fortunes began to eventually change for the better. Sixteen years into the marriage Nathaniel had to put his property up for auction, but a year later his wife’s father William Pepperell passes away and leaves his fortune with Nathaniel’s wife and son (Staiti 25). The death rescues Nathaniel from bankruptcy and