Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

Part 2: Forging A New Nation, 1776-1865

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    IN PART II, we shift our attention from empire-building to nation-building. During the first three centuries of European settlement in the New World, the arts played a central role in the network of goods, services, and ultimately, peoples, exchanged between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. By the late eighteenth century, this global economy extended across the Pacific to China. But the British Empire was soon cursed by its own success. The British could not hold on to their increasingly prosperous colonies across the Atlantic. The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century created an assertive mercantile elite-and a supporting cast of artisans, farmers, plantation owners, bankers, merchants, shop keepers, and laborers unhappy with their colonial status, enamored with Enlightenment discourses of freedom, and eager to assert their rights. The result was revolution.

    The two young me,n staring at us across the page represent the face of revolution. Their enigmatic smiles are part of a "deceit," which is the term their father, painter Charles Willson Peale, gave to the life-sized canvas. Peale extended the painting into the viewer's space. He placed a wooden riser at the painting's base, and a doorframe around its sides. By fooling the viewer's eye, Peale playfully challenged his audience to enter the world depicted in the painting as if it were real.

    Peale's painting was more than a visual joke. Known today as The Staircase Group, it represents an opening salvo in a war waged by the arts to find new audiences in the years after the American Revolution. Artists began to forge alliances between themselves and their fellow citizens by linking the arts to politics and everyday life. They attempted to elevate the tastes of those around them and educate their viewers in their duties as citizens

    The first half of the nineteenth century marked the beginnings of industrialization in the United States. Artists responded in their work to the many changes they saw occurring around them. They noted the rise in immigration, and the nation's shifting demography, by depicting scenes of everyday life filled with the many new faces and "types" associated with different regions of the country: the sly New England merchant, the rugged western pioneer, the gullible country 'bumpkin." They dealt with race and slavery by providing white patrons with reassuring images of contented African American subjects. They responded to urbanization-and growing unrest among the working classes-by idealizing the countryside as a space of pre-industrial beauty and harmony. They invested the landscape with spiritual powers, equating the nation's newness with fresh beginnings and unlimited possibilities. They transmuted the nation's rapid, and often violent, expansion westward into a vision of "Manifest Destiny," the country's divinely ordained mission to bring civilization to the wilderness.

    Artists focused their efforts, in other words, on the business of nation-building. They created a vision of the United States that-though occasionally critical-tended to idealize the nation's past and future, to bring people together across class and economic divides, and to forge consensus.

    That dream of national unity blew apart in the spring of 1861, when southern artillery bombed federal troops in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. In the ensuing four years, artists produced images and objects, from portraits to quilts, that addressed the war raging around them. In the end, however, it was a newly invented technology-photography-that displayed the horrors of modern warfare in unprecedented fashion. The Civil War marks the triumph not only of an industrial economy over an agrarian one but the ascent of a powerful mechanical device, the camera, which introduced new ways of representing and interpreting the world.

    Thumbnail: CHARLES WILLSON PEALE, The Staircase Group (detail), 1795. Oil on canvas, 89 x 39 in (227 x 100 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. (See also fig. 5.32)

    This page titled Part 2: Forging A New Nation, 1776-1865 is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.