Pat Lyon at the Forge
The first painting that will be presented in this unit is John Neagle’s
Pat Lyon at the Forge.
The painting depicts Pat Lyon, a successful blacksmith. Lyon had made his fortune as a blacksmith, and was so proud of this fact that he wanted to be painted as a blacksmith, not a rich man. The painting presents enough factual information to allow for the beginnings of interpretation, and offers the opportunity for much greater analysis (a fact which lends itself to an initial assessment of the student’s abilities in this area).
The painting depicts Lyon in his own forge looking up as if interrupted from work while a younger man, his apprentice, and works behind him. His tools are strewn about his work area, and the forge is lit. He is dressed as a workman, surrounded by the trappings of his work. This aspect of the painting will allow students to pick up on some very specific literal details about blacksmithing.
In addition to the factual details, there are some aspects of the painting (including its very composition), which hint at the overall goal of the unit. The tower in the upper right hand corner of the painting is actually a prison in which Lyon was briefly incarcerated. This detail expresses Neagle’s rise to success from humble if not questionable beginnings. The young apprentice as well can be indicative of opportunity, or the entrepreneurial spirit.
Discussion of the painting’s composition could center on the central question of “Why?” Why did Neagle paint the items he did? Why did Lyon want to be painted in this situation? Why is Neagle central in the painting? These questions and many more will help initiate the students to composition by teaching them that they must assume that everything in a painting has meaning, and is there for a reason.
War News from Mexico
The second painting in this unit is Richard Caton Woodville’s
War News from Mexico.
The painting depicts a group of people gathered around a central figure who is reading a newspaper from the “penny press.” The central thing in the painting is clearly the newspaper, and all of the action of the painting focuses around it. The painting is full of basic historical information, in addition to more abstract concepts, which make it an ideal painting for this section of the unit.
The newspaper at the center is part of the “penny press,” a type of cheap newspaper, which was then common. By the 1840s technology, entrepreneurship and literacy led to the creation of cheap, mass-produced newspapers, which would become known as the penny press. These newspapers filled a niche in the economy and made fortunes for their investors. They were filled with sensationalized news from around the world, alongside newly available lithographs, which made it possible to show the reader what the article described. They were enormously popular, and served as entertainment throughout the nation.
The scene in the painting reiterates their popularity: a large group of people crowd around the paper and its reader hoping to hear part of the news. The painting’s title tells the viewer quite clearly what the news in the paper was about, and plays into two other major themes in American History at the time of the painting, Manifest Destiny and the Mexican American War.
A New York newspaper editor named John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny.” O’Sullivan wrote in 1845 “Our manifest destiny, is to over spread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”(Tindall, 534) The idea of manifest destiny spread throughout the national consciousness and gained great support among voters. Under the auspices of manifest destiny, the U.S. would annex Texas, go to war with Mexico, and settle a treaty with Britain over Oregon before the end of the decade.
In 1845, the United States annexed the recently independent nation of Texas arousing much consternation in Mexico (from whom Texas had recently won its independence). The Mexican government protested and in response the United States declared war on May 13th, 1846. For the next two years the Mexican War raged. In the end, under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States gained California, New Mexico and all of Texas north of the Rio Grande. The Mexican Cession was one of the largest territorial gains in U.S. history and helped accomplish the dream of manifest destiny.
The painting depicts the popularity of news from this war, and the widespread interest that existed. In addition, it includes a number of specific details, which can not only hint at the social climate of the U.S. during this period, but can also spur discussion in a classroom setting. The placement of the woman (marginalized in the window) and the African Americans (sitting physically beneath the white men in the photo) hint not only at social realities of the 1840s, but can point to bias, an agenda, or a political statement being made by the artist. On the whole it is a painting, which is open to all levels of interpretation, and can allow for some serious discussion, which at this point in the unit, will be deeper and of a more insightful nature.
This painting offers the students an opportunity to recall what they learned about composition by discussing figure placement and dress. Simply by looking at the scene they will be able to see that the African American characters and the woman are both marginalized, the woman in the dark and the African Americans beneath the rest. Woodville makes a potent statement about the status of these characters through their placement, while offering a prime opportunity to discuss figure and item placement as a key component to composition.
Woodville also makes use of color in a way that lends itself to teaching artistic interpretation. His stark white paper in the center is clearly the focus, and this fact is accentuated by the fact that it is brighter than anything else in the painting. Woodville goes on to use a very similar white color in the African American child’s garment. Drawing upon the assumption that everything in a painting carries meaning, it might be useful to ask the students what this white garment means. The teacher might even ask whether or not we know what Woodville thinks of slavery or African Americans.
Bargaining for a Horse
The third painting in this unit is William Sidney Mount’s famous work,
Bargaining for a Horse
. It depicts two men whittling and ostensibly bargaining for a horse, which also appears in the scene. Mount’s original title (Farmers Bargaining) was changed by Edward L. Carey, who published an engraving of the painting in 1840. The changed name has stuck ever since.
It was painted by Mount for his patron Luman Reed, a successful New York merchant. Reed had come from a humble farming background in upstate New York, and in a way the painting exonerated him as a success. Reed was enormously pleased with the outcome of the work, declaring it “a new era of the fine arts in the country.”
Mount makes use of a visual pun in this painting, depicting the act of trading for a horse. The activity refers to “horse trading,” a 19th century colloquialism which referred to the promise of material benefit in return for political support. Under it’s original title the joke of horse-trading is left to the observer, a point that Reed was quite fond of. After the title’s change the meaning became much more obvious, leaving less to the devices of the 19th century viewer.
By depicting the men whittling mount ensures that they do not make eye contact, it also suggests that the bargain is not important enough to justify the full attention of either man. The whittling could also be seen as a means of delaying the bargaining, or even by distracting the each other from the bargain at hand. In either situation, it serves as an indictment of social, economic and political bargaining as something distasteful.
The painting also deals specifically with the notion of Yankeeism, a stereotype of Northeastern behavior, and a well-known concept in the late federalist and antebellum periods. Both north and south sought to increase their wealth and power at this point, but in very different ways. While the South continued to expand the institution of slavery, seeking to create more wealth by simply moving westward to plant more fields and create more plantations, the North was filled with entrepreneurs seeking commercial success. Thus the Yankee was born.
Yankees were most commonly depicted as New England farmers who were clumsy in manner, suspicious of progress and quite foreign to urbanites, especially New Yorkers. Yankee farmers epitomized the “other” to New Yorkers, and Yankee peddlers became a symbol of blatant commercial drive. These peddlers were viewed as trading their integrity for greed, and were therefore suspect characters of a deceitful nature. The Yankee was a creation that embodied all of the nations fears of progress, commercialism and the dominance of the North East over the rest of the nation.
Mount plays into this negative depiction with his farmers bargaining in that they are both participating in the almost universally Yankee activity of bargaining without any reference to the modes of production which led to the product in question. There are few farm implements, and little evidence that either man had anything to do with the raising or breeding of the horse, replacing old civic ideals about hard work and production. There is only the horse, the men, and the bargain.
Mount’s work will allow the class to recap what has already been discussed through composition and color as well as offering fodder for discussion of the painter’s motive. Once the painting is sufficiently analyzed, Mount’s biases become quite clear. That being the case, it offers students the opportunity to hypothesize about the perspective of the artist in a way that has not yet been fully explored by the unit.
The fourth painting in the unit is
by George Caleb Bingham. The painting depicts a debate between a democrat and a Whig, both running for office. A crowd assembles, paying varying degrees of attention to the speaker.
It is important to note that the parties depicted in the painting bear some resemblance to our modern political parties and therefore could make a splendid comparison with modern parties. The Whigs, traditionally the party of the wealthy and the North East, believed in a stronger, more active federal government. While the democrats, traditionally the party of the South, believed in limited governmental power, and sought to weaken the federal government.
Bingham’s work offers a wealth of accessible information on every level that has been discussed thus far. On the surface there is a great deal of historic information in the painting, which will be accessible to students at this point. The crowd, and the barn and the fact that many have come to this speech only to pay no attention at all, all lend themselves to historical discussion. Beyond these factors, the painting makes very clear statements about the make up of the electorate, in that the work does not include any women or African Americans.
The subject of the painting also lends itself to historical discussion. A great deal of information about the character of American politics at that point. Stark differences might be drawn between the current state of politics and the conduct of politics in the 1850’s. This painting offers a strong contrast to the sterile speeches and debates of our modern era. It might even be useful to compare this painting with a picture or video of a modern congressional election. This type of comparison would really enhance the differences in the participants, the structure, and the formality of events of this kind.
Bingham’s politics are also clear through his depiction of the two speakers, and the crowd. Bingham was a confirmed Whig, having worked for the Whigs in the elections of 1840 and 1844 creating political banners. This information can be used to great effect in carrying home the point that each artist (indeed every person) had their own influences and reasons for creating art or history. For this reason this painting is extremely useful for the end of this unit.
In addition to hypothesizing on motive, and composition, Bingham’s work lends itself to the final aspect of artistic interpretation to be taught through this unit, that of visual rhyming. Bingham makes clear use of this technique through his two white-clad characters. It would be difficult for Bingham to make the connection between these two men more clear. The teacher might ask the question, “Are there any two figures in this painting that are connected in some way?” or “Is there anything in this painting that strongly resembles something else?” The important part will be to elicit from the students the understanding that an artist might paint things very similarly in the interest of connecting the two.
Forging the Shaft
Forging the Shaft
serves as an excellent comparison to Neagle’s
Pat Lyon at the Forge
, on both an artistic and an historic level.
Forging the Shaft
depicts an ironworking factory in the 1870’s. A group of men struggles with a very large iron shaft being pulled from a furnace. The fires of the furnace light the whole factory and there is a substantial group of men assembled to the task.
Weir’s work makes an excellent historic counterpoint to the work of Neagle. While Neagle is portraying a lone artisan and his apprentice at work in a small forge, Weir shows a large group of factory workers all working together to forge something much larger. The comparison highlights the changes that occurred in America in just 50 years time, with Neagle romanticizing the individual, and Weir chronicling the masses.
On an artistic level, this comparison also helps to bring out a change in artistic focus, thus further solidifying the historic change in the means of production. The composition of Weir’s work uses light, in this case the light of the forge to make the shaft the focal point of the whole painting. Neagle’s work on the other hand uses color and light to highlight Lyon.
This comparison is a useful place to begin the unit as a function of the stark and obvious differences in composition combined with the historic relevance of the two works. Not only will this comparison allow for a strong introduction to genre works and art in general, but it also serves the purpose of introducing and solidifying an historic concept.