Images contribute to our understanding of history, its events and players. A single image, however, can picture only one visual narrative or portrait; it is unable to capture the full scope of a historical episode, to represent the voices of everyone involved.
Chapter 3 of American Memory, “American History: Responses and Revisions,” highlights how the widely reproduced images that we use and see in the schoolroom, in books and travel guides, and online and through social media can shape our memories and perceptions of historical events. Some of the paintings and prints in this gallery reinforce the popular, selectively edited narratives about the past. Others bring a likely lesser-known perspective to moments in history, complicating (or broadening) our understanding of elections and voting rights, colonialism and conquest, and life in the armed services. Images can both make heroes and erase atrocities from memory. Censorship is an acknowledgment of this power, a power that the artists represented here, from Winslow Homer to Paul Cadmus, George Henry Yewell to Zoe Leonard, have used to help convey a fuller range of American experiences and narratives.
American, b. 1961
George Henry Yewell’s painting General Grant’s Last Home, Drexel Cottage, Mt. McGregor NY, immortalizes Drexel Cottage as the site of Ulysses S. Grant’s last days. Grant had relocated his family, staff, and medical team to Mt. McGregor from Manhattan on June 16, 1883. He was in debt, struggling to finish his memoir, and battling late-stage throat cancer; his doctors had recommended the move from the humid city. The air was cleaner in the mountains, making life more comfortable for the controversial former president.
Grant’s presidency left behind a legacy of corruption and scandals, including the breaking of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, when miners discovered gold in Sioux territory in the Black Hills in 1874, and the economic collapse caused by the crash of the gold market on September 24, 1869, the nation’s first “Black Friday.” His administration also did not support reconstruction after the Civil War. Revealing nothing of this legacy, Yewell’s painting is sentimental, picturing Grant’s late Victorian yellow cottage in a warm forest vignette. The nation was changing and many were nostalgic for an era that was quickly coming to an end. In fact, we could look at the lone tree in the right foreground, with its crown reduced to a few bare branches, as a metaphor for the decline of a once thriving political force before the emergence of a new political age.
Zoe Leonard’s I want a president engages with contemporary struggles in the United States. Leonard’s work invites us to consider the colonial precedent of America’s political offices and whether people who have not lived with the oppression in the country can genuinely help the disenfranchised. I want a president specifically calls for a president who has experienced, firsthand, rape, civil disobedience, worker strife, environmental racism, sex work, subpar infrastructure and healthcare, and discrimination based on racial and gender identity, immigration status, sexual orientation, and physical and mental disabilities. This list, while impossible as a list of one person’s experience, highlights the white, privileged monoculture of the White House.
Both objects provide a picture of the American presidency. In Yewell’s painting, a flawed president is idolized and a presidential past is romanticized. Leonard’s print zeros in on the nation’s sociopolitical landscape and changing demographics—the people that elected officials historically fail to represent—and looks to a new political order that can navigate the country beyond its oppressive heritage. These two works draw attention to the disparities across America and the need for broader dialogue as we question our understanding of history and work to broaden the narratives that are widely taught.
In 1861, Winslow Homer was sent to the front lines of the Civil War in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for the journal Harper’s Weekly. The three engravings here that Homer made for the journal reflect (at least on their surface) the presidential and war reportage typical of the time.
The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, for example, pictures a densely packed crowd of people, their backs to us as they attentively listen to Lincoln’s address. Near the outer edges of the composition, however, Homer brought more detail to the audience, which is mostly white. In the lower right-hand corner, we see expressions of worry etched onto individual faces; a lone Black figure engages the viewer with a wary smile. The only other Black person visible, in the lower left-hand corner, waves a hat in the air with excitement behind a white man who is glaring. Homer made this before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 established the freeing of enslaved people as a goal of the Union Army’s war efforts. We might consider, then, whether these two figures are surrogates for the artist, their respective expression and exuberance a commentary on the proceedings and on those who, like the attendees here, look at change with anger and disgust.
With News from Home, Homer provided a rare glimpse into camp life and the war’s impact on civilian welfare. It presents men fighting and women at home, so a conventionally classist and gendered, heteronormative assessment of combat. There also are no Black soldiers in the etching, but Homer did include a female vendor in the background of the panel in the upper-right corner. The War for the Union is one of the artist’s most complex compositional designs. With fine, swift lines and dramatic shading, Homer fleshed out the action-packed assault that the Army of the Potomac ignited in Richmond, Virginia. The Union soldiers were on the brink of defeat when last-minute reinforcements arrived, resulting in a battle victory. The text that was published with Homer’s engraving emphasized the rarity of soldiers clashing bayonets with one another, noting that retreat before hand-to-hand combat ensued was more common. This suggests that what we might see as wartime heroism is likely an exaggeration of the actual fighting that took place.
Paul Cadmus’s Fleets In! presents a very different view of the armed services—one that led to its censure. Pictured is a rowdy, drunken group of sailors on leave, harassing the passersby, who variously ignore them, snort in disgust, or defend themselves. When Cadmus first exhibited the painted version of this subject, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1934, critics and viewers were shocked. The wild, inebriated cavorting of the navy men was the nominal reason for the painting’s censure; the unspoken one was the homoerotic content. The flirtation between the suited civilian and the uniformed soldier suggests the possibility for a sexual tryst that was not just objectionable to many of the time but also illegal. Retired naval admiral Hugh Rodman fanned the flames of the scandal, complaining that it was “an unwarranted insult to the enlisted personnel of our Navy...and evidently originated in the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service.” Assistant Secretary of the Navy H. L. Roosevelt complied and consigned the painting to a private men’s club for decades.
The print here is one of a series Cadmus created from the painting, guaranteeing that the image would have a far wider reach than the original work, much like Homer’s mass-produced images from the Civil War.
“What does independence mean to you?”
Twelve American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Marisol (also known as Maria Sol Escobar), and Fritz Scholder, created work in response to this question for a publication honoring the bicentennial of the United States. The company, Lorillard, that commissioned the artists made Kent cigarettes, named after the company’s then president, Herbert Kent. Like many tobacco companies of the time, Lorillard marketed its products as symbols of freedom and liberty, and it produced the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence to “help illuminate the American experience as a contemporary expression of the meaning of our country’s independence.” (Incidentally, the cigarettes, which were advertised to be healthier because of their patented Micronite filter, were later found to contain asbestos.) The screenprints and lithographs featured in the portfolio capture the ethos of artists in the mid-1970s and provide an opportunity for us to consider ideas of what independence means.
With The 1920s...The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, for example, Jacob Lawrence declared participation in democratic activities as one characteristic that defines American identity. In the print, people young and old skim over newspapers, engage in small talk, and attend to their young as they wait in line to vote. The gold walking cane held by an older gentleman in the foreground and the blue headdress worn by the woman in the front of the line help guide our eye toward the voting machine.
Throughout the twentieth century, during the Great Migration, many Black citizens moved from the South to northern cities to escape the racial barriers of the Jim Crow laws to perform their democratic rights. While there was greater political enfranchisement in the North, racial inequity persisted. This print envisions a community of migrant workers, individuals of all stripes, practicing their right to vote, free of obstacles.
Fritz Scholder contributed the lithograph Bicentennial Indian to the portfolio. The print depicts a Native warrior wrapped in an American flag. For the warrior’s dress and the chair in which he sits, Scholder chose items dating to the late 1800s. Those years mark the height of westward expansion and settlement, a moment symbolizing freedom and liberty to many white Americans, but a fraught time for Indigenous ones. The fan of eagle feathers that the figure holds upright is an enduring symbol of Native presence, strength, and survival. Scholder, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, sought to broaden understanding of what and who defines Native American art.
Marisol’s lithograph, Women’s Equality, portrays two activists from the nineteenth century: on the left, the writer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and, on the right, the abolitionist and religious reformer Lucretia Mott. Both activists united alongside Susan B. Anthony to form the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. The organization’s constitution states its sole purpose was to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” Here, Stanton and Mott embrace one another while holding hands. Their facial expressions are taut, as they look directly at us, enveloped in a spectrum of colors similar to an aurora borealis—a rare sight that inspires awe. Indeed, in the introductory essay for the portfolio’s catalogue, Marisol stated that she chose the subjects “because of their leadership in the struggle for women’s rights,” and “because I like their faces—strong, determined, with very intense eyes.”
The Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, printed in 1975, was shown wildly across the country through 1976; Lorillard then gifted more than one hundred portfolios to museums and institutions across the country.
The two prints here, by Mabel Dwight and Warrington Colescott, function much like political cartoons in that the images critique political idealism through humor. Both artists created work that highlights a pattern of historians and political leaders prioritizing ideals over reality.
Dwight made prints that reflect human comedy amid the country’s rapid modernization. She believed, in her own words, that an artist may view “people with sympathy and translate them into art just as tragic and humorous as he may wish.” Colescott made etchings that use satire to challenge representations of American history.
Dwight’s print President John Adams’ House depicts the president’s colonial home isolated in a jungle of modernity. Scaffolding, smoke, and factories—a world that has changed—surround the home, which remains untouched with its white picket fencing. Pedestrians pass, seemingly unphased by the incongruity as they go about their day. Once a symbol of wealth and prosperity, the house is on the brink of erasure, no longer an accurate depiction of the American Dream. Here, Dwight generalized America’s founding fathers’ intentions from a class perspective (or using a Marxist lens), pondering if a rampant, industrialized hellscape that encroached upon even their personal space is how they envisioned America’s future infrastructure. President John Adams’ House also exemplifies American ideals of individualism, with citizens oblivious to the historical significance of the monuments in their midst and more concerned with their daily goings-on than with the health of their current political system.
In Colescott’s Prime-Time Histories: Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, we see Abraham Lincoln’s assassination occurring while the president is at a raunchy striptease performance. In his famous booth, Lincoln enjoys the show as a personified cow assassinates him with a pistol-in-hoof. Such representations are signature Warrington Colescott, who often commented through his prints on the passiveness of politicians and the wealthy in the wake of violence and poor infrastructure in American life. Here, too, the audience fails to notice the outrageous murder, highlighting the desensitization of Americans to tragedy, especially when it does not directly affect them.
Colescott, in contrast to Dwight, was widely known for playing up high-drama stories in American history. In so doing with Prime-Time Histories: Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, he brought the narrative of the president’s assassination back down to earth, pointing out that American politics can be just as absurd, tragic, and entertaining as a theatrical play, and reminding us that politicians are not the purist, godlike heroes history wants us to believe. At the same time, Colescott and Dwight shared a similar sensibility, one that lampoons our seeming indifference to historical events and the past.
American, b. Mexico, 1953
Action-packed, The Adventures of the Modernist Cannibals places a spotlight on topics of immigration, foreign policy, and colonialism. The tale that unfolds starts from about the sixteenth century and with the flipping of history, with the Maya and Aztec people conquering European nations versus the other way around. The speculative narrative in this fictional world provides an opportunity for us to consider cultural erasure and the brutality of the Spanish colonial history in Mexico.
The codex (or book) that Enrique Chagoya created is similar in style to the traditional codices of the Maya: it is an accordion-fold format, meant to be read from right to left, with pages numbered using a system of lines and dots. Chagoya was inspired by the Maya codices he studied at France’s national library, an experience he acknowledged in the French title that appears on the first page. Yet the imagery he used draws on a broad swath of cultural sources, including Maya and Aztec symbols, European prints, comic book characters, and American pop culture. Icons such as Captain America, Super Man, and the Mexican superhero Adelita provide deceptively friendly entry points for today’s viewers. (Adelita, notably, was the name given to women during the Mexican Revolution [1910–20] who served as commanding officers, combatants, and camp followers.) Through such images, Chagoya sought to reach a range of audiences, across cultures and countries.
Caricatures of Indigenous peoples also have their place in this world. The Adventures gives them agency to, like the story they populate, turn history around and interrogate those in our reality, where such derogatory depictions were created. Following the title page, for example, we come upon a figure on the right with exaggerated facial features and wearing a sombrero who is seemingly comparing internal body parts and workings. This perhaps is a reference to a number of controversial studies throughout modern history that have examined physical characteristics and genetics as the bases for a “racial hierarchy.”
In a similar example, to the left of this page, an Aztec artist is translating the likeness of a figure model into an abstract painting on canvas, appropriating the twentieth-century European artistic movement. This serves as a juxtaposition to the European artists who adopted the aesthetics of what they considered “primitive” art for their own purposes during the same period. Further, the picture of the model on the wall recalls castas, or the eighteenth-century paintings that the Spanish made to categorize the pseudo-ethnographic-based racial and social distinctions of a changing community.
To find yourself unsettled by the imagery while also captivated is the point here. Turning the tables to illuminate the perspective of others remains a powerful exercise not only in art, but also when examining historical events.
American, b. 1955
With Domestic Dancers, Willie Cole summoned the memory of his enslaved forebears and the women in his bloodline who labored in homemaking roles. To construct the work, he repeatedly scorched the canvas with a hot iron’s soleplate (or base); the marks, the figures he made from them, and the act of burning the canvas itself express that history has many layers, and that those layers are ultimately inseparable. The same scorch marks that appear to form figures practicing a sacred dance also recall the masks worn in many Nigerian and Yoruba ritual performances, linking the images to Cole’s ancestors, as well as his early interest in dance and theatre. These same marks evoke sectional drawings of galleys packed with people taken from the African continent for trade (see the print of a slave galley included here).
Galleys are a type of long, low ship that, from the early seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, were used to take about 12.5 million African people to work the plantations throughout the English colonies in America. They were packed as cargo and often chained to the floor and to each other. Illness and disease were rampant, and those who died were dumped into the sea. Only 10.6 million survived the Middle Passage, the part of the trade route that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, between Africa and the West Indies. Except for a few, the names of the enslaved were not recorded. The transatlantic slave trade, a triangular trade route between the Americas, Europe, and primarily the western coast of Africa, is the largest forced migration of people in history.
Cole’s act of burning the canvas parallels both the African practice of scarification and the branding of enslaved African people in the United States. The former is a type of beautification, a rite of passage, and a tradition—not dissimilar to the body modifications and tattooing we see today. The resulting marks telegraph a wealth of meanings to a particular family or political group, such as discipline and endurance, attractiveness and health. The latter was used on plantations by slave owners, who would burn the insignia of the trading company or plantation into the chests or back shoulders of the African people they had purchased to identify their property.
The reference to the transatlantic slave trade that Willie Cole made with Domestic Dancers speaks to the interconnectedness of monetary greed and oppression, highlighting colonial empires such as the United States in particular. Today, the descendants of enslaved African groups, or the African diaspora, still experience systematic repercussions of colonization, including land dispossession, exploited labor, resource scarcity, and discrimination. Domestic Dancers further speaks to the memory of African traditions that persisted in early America despite attempts at their erasure.