'Old Glory' and the art of the American Flag
'Old Glory', our American flag, is flying high these days, despite the tragic occurrences that have recently challenged our nation. A symbol of our liberty, freedom, and pride, she is emerging atop the rubble of the World Trade Center, and adorns the charred walls of the Pentagon. Vibrant red, white and blue colors are blossoming everywhere: on the automobile antennae, on baseball fields, and waving proudly from businesses and homes throughout the country.
The American flag is how America signs her name. She flies on the moon, sits atop Mount Everest, and is hurtling out in space. She is a reminder of not only the freedoms enjoyed by each of us in this country, but also of the important roles we play as individuals and contributors. While Americans recognize and celebrate collective achievements, such as the writing of the Declaration of Independence, victory in the Revolutionary War, or the landing of a man on the Moon, it is individual accomplishment that we often cherish the most. The 'stars' of such events -- Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Neil Armstrong - shine brightly in our collective constellation. One person's contribution can define the course and meaning of history.
A work of art herself, the Star-Spangled Banner has, over the years, undergone a series of transformations. When it was made in 1813 it was a simple garrison flag. No one knows with absolute certainty who designed the first Stars and Stripes or who made it. Just as the Betsy Ross mythology has dominated American flag history, so has the ardent belief that Washington and his generals carried "Old Glory" during the battles of the American Revolution. Often seen are paintings of weary soldiers carrying into the fray a tattered flag bearing 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars in a circle. But the reality of these flags is probably questionable. Paintings by such artists as John Trumbull (1756-1843), depicting General Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga (October 17, 1777) and those by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) may not have been based on fact.
Congressman Francis Hopkinson seems most likely to have designed 'Old Glory', and a few historians continue to believe that Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, made the first one. The Star-Spangled Banner was, however, probably made under government contract in the summer of 1813 by a professional Baltimore flagmaker, Mary Pickersgill. She is thought to have been assisted by her 13-year old daughter and two of her nieces. To assemble the unusually large flag, Pickersgill is said to have laid it out on the floor of a neighboring brewery. She used English woolen bunting for the stripes and cotton for the stars. A receipt exists, made out to Mary Pickersgill, showing she was paid $405.90 for making the banner and $168.54 for making a smaller flag. The garrison flag that Mary Pickersgill made for Baltimore's Fort McHenry measured 30 x 42 feet, about one quarter the size of a basketball court, and each star was about two feet across. Notes on the reverse of the receipt by Major George Armistead, the fort's commander, indicate that he received both flags on Aug. 19, 1813. After the British attack in 1814, it became a valued keepsake in the Armistead family.
The popularity of Francis Scott Key's anthem during and after the Civil War was what transformed 'Old Glory' into a national treasure. Key's song "The Star-Spangled Banner" did more than give the American flag a name; it changed the way Americans looked at their flag. In the early 1800s, Americans, like people in other countries, considered a national flag simply a military or naval emblem. By the 1860s, the song had become so popular and so closely associated with the stirring events of the Civil War that it elevated the flag to a special place in the hearts of Americans, and today the flag is our primary symbol of American patriotism.
It was not, however, until an Executive Order on June 24, 1912 that the order of the stars and the proportions of the flag were prescribed. Consequently, flags dating before this period sometimes show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions, these features being left to the discretion of the flag maker. President Clinton, speaking before the flag at the National Museum of American History on July 13, 1998, stated: "This Star-Spangled Banner and all its successors have come to embody our country, what we think of as America. It may not be quite the same for every one of us who looks at it, but in the end we all pretty much come out where the framers did. We know that we have a country founded on the then revolutionary idea that all of us are created equal, and equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".
Artists have long portrayed the flag, and, as Clinton said, it has different meanings for those who look at it.
Waves of patriotism swept the United States in the spring of 1917 when the United States entered the Great War on the side of Great Britain and France. President Wilson signed the resolution on April 6, and flags sprouted from buildings like garden flowers. The famed "I Want You" posters went up, and the Selective Service Act was passed. Americans were not to see action, or casualties, for almost six months and the summer was one long festival of color, with flags festooning every important building.
American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was not one to miss the visual possibilities of such a display of color and line. While in Paris in 1889, Hassam had likely seen Claude Monet's 'Rue Montorgueil', depicting Paris during a national holiday when French flags were hanging from all stories of many buildings. His familiarity with Monet and the other Impressionists may well explain the similarities in Hassam's flag painting 'Rue Daunou' and Monet's 'Rue Montorgueil'. 'Rue Daunou 1889', however, was not well received in the United States, and Hassam did not return to a flag theme until 1916. Between 1916 and 1918, though, he completed a series of some two dozen flag paintings commemorating the parades and the flags of the Allies, from Belgium to the United States. The flags became to Hassam what haystacks had been to Monet: a constant motif in a changing environment. He painted them in all seasons and in all lights: spring, summer, autumn, even winter; he painted them in the early morning, at half-past nine, and at midday, and late afternoon; he painted the flags in the rain, the snow, wind, and in October mist. Though the paintings were most often completed in his studio on 57th Street, he sketched their beginnings from many vantagepoints: at ground level, from the windows of nearby buildings, and from the top of double-decker buses. In the process, he also left a veritable illustrated guide to the architecture of Fifth Avenue, or Avenue of the Allies as it became known in 1918. Among the structures that can be identified in the many paintings are the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the Union League Club, the University Club, the Friar's Club, the Gotham Hotel, the Aeolian building, the Bush Terminal Building, St Patrick's Cathedral, and St Thomas Episcopal Church.
'Allies Day, May 1917' is probably the most famous of Hassam's flag paintings. It commemorates the visits of the French war commissioner and British war commissioner in May 1917, a month after the United States had entered the war. It was the first time the flags of the three nations had hung together publicly. In describing the painting, a New York Times critic wrote (March 13, 1918): "...the painting is a perpetual wonder that anything so difficult as flags could be manipulated with such skill and produce a really beautiful picture. There is the deep red of the large Union Jack directly in the foreground, the Stars and Stripes, the flag a little larger, given its proper significance in the etiquette of flags, but with a modified color tone; the deep blue of the French Tricolor striking another deep note, and a wind-rumpled flag breaks the monotony of straight lines. There is another flag, the Stars and Stripes, one of the highest, again taking its place of preeminence but without assertiveness; there are the softened gray walls of the buildings and a glimpse of the crowds in the streets, -a charming picture of a difficult subject and a historic scene".
The vista is north along Fifth Avenue, with St Thomas Episcopal Church on the left and viewed from a high vantagepoint, with tiny stick figures peopling the streets, much like the scenes Pissarro had done from balconies in Paris. As Ilene Susan Fort of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art notes in her book, The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, the sunlight on the church can be read as a sign of divine approval of the Anglo-American-French Union.
Also a painter of New York, Guy Carleton Wiggins' (1883-1962) evocative images, often in snowstorms, frequently include American flags flying, as in 'Fifth Avenue Blizzard', 'Winter at the Library', 'Mid-Town Storm', 'Trinity Church, Wall Street', and numerous others. Like Hassam, Wiggins traveled abroad many times, especially in France, where he was influenced by the Impressionists. Both artists had a love of New York, and Wiggins painted his first city scene there in 1912, prior to Hassam's New York flag series in 1916. His was a style that incorporated the color and techniques of French Impressionism along with emerging American concepts of his time. Old Lyme, Connecticut, became Guy Wiggin's summer home around 1920, and he became one of the youngest members of the Old Lyme colony of painters that congregated there. Original members of the group included the above-mentioned flag artist Childe Hassam, as well as Henry Rankin Poore, Frank Vincent DuMond and Carleton Wiggins.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is regarded by many as the quintessential illustrator of American life. 'The Saturday Evening Post' was his forum and the 1930s and 1940s are generally considered to be the most fruitful decades of his career. He lived in Vermont for many years, and Rockwell's work was a reflection of small-town American life and values. Later, during a ten-year association with 'Look' magazine, he painted pictures illustrating some of his deepest concerns and interests including civil rights, America's war on poverty, and the exploration of space. Rockwell had a long association with the Boy Scouts of America. One day in the fall of 1912, as a talented 18-year-old art student, he walked into the offices of Boy's Life looking for work. When he left, he had his first commission to do a magazine illustration and began a relationship with the Boy Scouts of America that would last for more than 60 years. Rockwell became the visual spokesman for Scouting, bringing its spirit and ideals to life through hundreds of now-classic paintings. Throughout his life, he remained deeply patriotic, and frequently used heroic symbols, especially the American flag, to communicate patriotic values to Boy Scouts. Every year but two, from 1925 through 1976, Norman Rockwell did a painting for the annual Boy Scout calendar published by Brown & Bigelow. Each painting presented an image of idealized Scouts in worthy action, and always with meticulously accurate uniforms and equipment. By 1929, the Boy Scout calendar was one of the most popular in America, and it remained so for many years. Norman Rockwell truly had a love affair with his country and with those symbols that made his country the great nation that it is. Again and again he drew our American flag, small-town bands, scenes of baseball, mom, and yes, even apple pie. In one of his last works, done for our nation's bicentennial, he showed himself placing a 'Happy Birthday' banner on the Liberty Bell.
Seeking to look at the signs of American culture with fresh eyes, Jasper Johns (1930-) painted a series of flag works during the 1950s. His were not flag-waving displays of patriotism. As Robert Hughes discusses in 'American Visions', "the newness Johns brought to the table was that of irony; he didn't believe in the Abstract Expressionist pursuit of tragic authenticity. To him, signs were signs, and he had the idea to rework some that were so well known, as he put it, that they weren't well seen. Hence his flag paintings that shocked the art audience in the mid-1950s. Johns seemed devoted to the flag, but his devotion was aesthetic, as was emphasized by the works' exquisite pelt of encaustic paint. By treating the flag's sacred form as mutable, he undermined it as a conventional symbol. But since he did so without any visible aggression or skepticism, you could not tell where he stood in the American patriotic frame." Since the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns has made paintings of such universally familiar objects as targets, maps, numbers, as well as flags. While early paintings such as 'Flags' seem fairly simple and straightforward at first, they still raise very basic questions about how painted images differ from the real objects they depict.
While our understanding of the American flag remains the same whether we see it flying from a flagpole or painted on a canvas, Johns' painting makes us consider this symbol in a different light. By painting with gestural brush strokes, Johns heightens our awareness of the flag's abstract design. Without denying our memory of its meaning, he reveals the flag to be as flat as the picture plane, and equally artful in its form and function. Johns seeks to show us that a flag is not always a flag, it just depends on how you look at it. Explaining his choice of subject matter, Johns said: "in the earlier paintings, I looked for subject matter that was recognizable. Letters and numbers, for example. These were things people knew, and did not know, in the sense that everyone had an everyday relationship to numbers and letters, but never had they seen them in the context of a painting. I wanted to make them see something new. I am interested in the idea of sight, in the use of the eye. I am interested in how we see and why we see the way we do".
Countless artists have used 'Old Glory' as their subject. Among them are: Herbert Stoops' (1888-1948) poignant work 'Soldiers Presented with Flags', of a soldier accepting the gift of a tiny flag from a child; Henry Spaulding's (1868-?) 'March of the Red Cross Flags', (1918) shows a city street with the stars and stripes flying along those with the Red Cross emblem; Haley Lever's (1876-1958) lively 'Flags' is another spirited city scene. Noted for his sculpture, Harry Jackson (1924-) created a memorable vision of the flag flying as it is held above the head of a galloping cavalry soldier in his bronze, 'The Flag Bearer'. Joseph Kernan's (1878-1958) comfortable image, 'Outdoorsmen Hoisting Flag', illustrates the flag being raised by two friends as they stand before a log cabin. Avant-garde artist Elaine Sturtevant (1926-) is the creator of 'John'sFlag' (1966), which interestingly sold for four times its high estimate at auction in 2000. 'Examining the Flag' by historical painter Jennie Brownscombe (1850-1936), also drew a noteworthy sale price, five times its high estimate at auction in 1999. Guy DuBois (1884-1958) painted 'Drooping Flag' (1930), a picture of an orator addressing a large crowd. Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) included a flag flying above a picturesque coastal home in his cheerful watercolor, 'House With a Flag on a Cove'.
In viewing the many depictions that exist of 'Old Glory' in works of art, we may all find and enrich the meaning that the American flag has for each of us. Long may she wave in peace.
If you have information to contribute on this subject, contact us via email: registrar@AskART.com