The year 1825 signaled a new era in American visual arts as artists searched for a national style that was different from the European tradition. The push westward fueled the search for a new national form of expression and for some American artists, like William Sidney Mount, the key to that new expression was held in the soil of the nation itself. In Eel Spearing at Setauket, Mount used pigments that were indigenous to Long Island. He also refused to travel abroad so that no foreign characteristics would become influential upon his paintings. Mount believed that by using pigments extracted from the Long Island soil, he would be better enabled at representing the local color, light and atmosphere of the nation. Many of Mount’s paintings, like Eel Spearing at Setauket, became political statements that expressed the fatal discord within the nation.
Painted for a wealthy New York lawyer who wanted a nostalgic picture of his childhood on Long Island, Eel Spearing at Setauket is one of Mount’s most famous paintings. Painted in the gorgeous morning light, two figures- a little boy and a female slave- fish for eels on the smooth river in Setauket. The manor of the commissioner, the Strong family estate, stands in the background, on the horizon. The slave stands in the foreground and wields a spear as she prepares to spear an eel. The position of her body calls to mind the traditional pose of St. George, the legendary dragonslayer. The boy sits in the back of the boat, watching as the woman spears the eel. The subtle coloring of the sand, water, and landscape speaks to Mount’s fervent study of the Long Island landscape and his use of indigenous pigments. The painting not only represents Long Island, it is Long Island. Reception for Eel Spearing at Setauket was mixed, as some did not like that it represented the young boy’s apprenticeship to a slave. By placing an armed slave at the height of his composition, Mount sullied the accepted agreement of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. Despite the smooth, docile, and geometric quality of the painting, Mount brought forth the fears upon everyone’s mind during this racially charged time in American history. At a time when the question of slavery was in debate, even a woman slave wielding an eel spear could call into question the stability of a nation. Mount succeeded in capturing scenes from everyday life in order to express a new national identity, but he also succeeded in capturing the instability and fragileness of the American nation in 1845.
In post-revolutionary America, grand, heroic, and idealized portraits of American leaders held no appeal for the country. Distrustful of what those grand and romanticized paintings stood for, Americans preferred simple and realistic portrayals of their patriots and leaders. One such realistic portrait was done by American artist Gilbert Stuart in 1796 and is now known as the Lansdowne Portrait because it was given as a gift to William Petty of Lansdowne. The painting is full of symbolism and representations of the new country and appealed to the vision of a government for the people that appealed to American citizens.
Washington is portrayed standing, in a black suit and powdered wig with his right hand outstretched in an oratorical manner and his left holding a ceremonial sword. His demeanor is commanding, yet open. The background is inspired by the Roman Republic with Doric columns with red drapes wrapped around them. A rainbow shoots through the sky symbolizing God’s agreement with the new country after the Revolutionary War and the prosperity that will follow. Washington’s suit is simple and not adorned with medals and ornaments typical of portraits in Europe. His sword is ceremonial and signifies his role in the Revolution and his role as commander-in-chief, but also stands for a democratic form of government over a monarchy. On the table beside Washington are volumes of the Journal of Congress and The Federalist Papers with the Constitution underneath them. They are all together on the table to symbolize the balance of powers within the new American government. Despite fears that glorifying a war hero would encourage a dictatorship, the simple characteristics of Washington and the importance placed on democracy appealed to Americans.
Painted during a tumultuous time in American history, John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark expresses the tension between imperial order and revolutionary chaos through the true story of a wealthy London merchant, Brook Watson, who lost his leg as a young man in a shark attack while swimming in Havana, Cuba. This painting shows Copley’s dedication to American subject matter and costume as well as to the Revolution despite the artist’s relocation from America to London.
This large painting depicts the dramatic moment of Watson’s rescue from the shark, who is coming in for its third attack upon the merchant. Lowly sailors are heroicized by Copley as one is positioned to spear the great shark (calling St. George slaying the dragon to mind), while others reach over the side and in the path of the shark’s open jaws to save the man. The rescuers bodies are positioned in a triangle shape, with a black slave holding a rope at the pinnacle. He is frozen with fear, signifying the emotional horror of the situation. Watson, naked and helpless, is dramatically lifted by a wave as he reaches toward his rescuers. Watson’s body is muscular and ghostly white. It shows no signs of being attacked by a shark, as there is no torn flesh or blood, which shows that Copley was influenced by the growing popularity of Romantic painting. The background is of the harbor in Havana, Cuba where a golden light spreads over the water and ships despite the horrific events that are unfolding in the water.
Painted during the American Revolution, the painting had political overtones regarding the Americans fight for freedom from the British. The dismembered body of Watson signified the damage done to the British Empire, as Watson’s severed leg stood for America breaking away from the body of the British Empire. When Watson and the Shark was exhibited in 1778, the war had taken a turn for the worst for Britain as France and American were allies and the British had lost some key battles, like the Battle of Saratoga. But Watson, symbolic of the British Empire, survived the attack and lived a successful life. Copley’s painting is optimistic for both parties as he believed that both Britain and America would prosper after the war was over. The golden light of the harbor is a promise of salvation and rebirth for both countries.