Painting and the
Paul Staiti and Jane Kamensky vividly and incisively tell the tug-of-war life stories of the painters who chronicled and mythologized
the American Revolution, reinvigorating our appreciation for now
iconic works of art and sharpening our perception of how our
nation was founded.
BY DONNA SEAMAN
In his rousing overture to this altogether exciting and innovative history of the American Revolution, professor of fine arts Staiti reminds us that patriotism re- quires a shared identity and shared values, and that this conceptual unity is created,
in part, by powerful and heroic images. He calls out five largely self-taught artists whose
paintings helped forge the new American ethos in the midst of war, civic unrest, and
vicious partisanship. Charles Willson Peale took up arms and the paintbrush to fight
for independence. Benjamin West, an American in London, created epic historical
paintings. John Trumbull fought in the war, was imprisoned as a spy in London, and
was encouraged by Thomas Jefferson to paint The Declaration of Independence, which
still graces the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. John Singleton Copley painted exceptionally affecting portraits of both British and American notables. Remembered as “reckless” and
“untrustworthy” as well as “gifted and garrulous,” Gilbert Stuart painted more than 100
portraits of George Washington, including the image gracing the dollar bill.
Staiti zestfully chronicles the complex lives of each talented and ambitious artist,
revealing how each negotiated the dangerous politics of the time, how they interact-ed, how their work evolved, and how each contributed to the birth of a new nation
and a new art world. He also performs illuminating close readings of their epoch-defining work and keenly explores the popularity of their portraits, which were
reproduced as prints and avidly collected, the celebrity trading cards or memes of the
day. As he interprets a vast amount of material with vigor and pleasure, Staiti brings
new vibrancy and meaning to boldly revolutionary paintings that both commemorate the suffering, conviction, and valor of a specific time and address the timeless
struggle for justice and freedom.
John Singleton Copley’s finest works were his portraits, and Kamensky ( The Exchange
Artist, 2008) portrays the portraitist with the literary equivalent of his visual expressiveness with color, detail, and emotional discernment. She brings us into Copley’s volatile
world, beginning with his humble boyhood home in colonial Boston, where ocean
winds delivered both commerce and war. Responsible, at age 13, for his twice-widowed
mother and half-brother, Copley, as ambitious and diligent as he was gifted, taught
himself to paint in a virtual aesthetic vacuum, securing enough commissions by age 20
to buy property. Kamensky traces the narrow line Copley walked as he painted both
British officials and fervent patriots, including Paul Revere, a balancing act that became
exponentially more dire when he married the daughter of a tea merchant at the height
of the riotous protests against British taxation.
Copley holds steady, shipping paintings to London in pursuit of critical guidance,
only to be told that he must see Europe’s masterworks. With the War of Independence
brewing at home, Copley tours Italy and settles in London, where he assiduously creates astonishingly intricate paintings, from elegant portraits of the elite and his own
loving family to enormous epic dramas, including Watson and the Shark and The Death
of Major Peirson. Kamensky, whose avidly inquisitive immersions in each mesmerizing canvas double our appreciation for Copley’s achievements, observes that the artist
“chased both soaring grandeur and earthbound fidelity.” Richly resourced, prismatic,
dynamic, factually and psychologically revelatory, and ebulliently spiked with political
insights and ironies, Kamensky’s biography provides an intimate view of the American
Revolution and its immediate aftermath as seen through the “acute, penetrating” gaze
of a masterful artist at work in the thick of it.
Of Arms and Artists:
By Paul Staiti.
Oct. 2016. 400p. illus. Bloomsbury,
$30 (9781632864659); e-book
A Revolution in Color:
The World of John
By Jane Kamensky.
Oct. 2016. 528p. illus. Norton, $35