Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes
Art, biography, history
Paul Staiti has an interesting idea. He wants to talk about the uses and meanings of art in a time of revolution. He doesn't completely pull it off, but it's a worthwhile try.
The biggest problem with Of Arms and Artists is that it's kind of all over the map structure-wise. It's sort of chronological, but not exactly. It sort of examines each artist in turn, but skips around a lot (somewhat inevitably, since the artists in question lived interconnected lives). It's thematic in places, but not consistently; the themes--art-as-propaganda, art-as-documentation, art-as-mythmaking, art-as-politics, art-as-history--surface and disappear and resurface.
All the same, these are pretty interesting notions. In an age before photography, a portrait of George Washington would never convey a message as simple as "This is what General Washington looks like." Every portrait, every history painting, every genre painting, was not just an image but an attempt to influence. Staiti is at his best when he's decoding the messages in the paintings. There are often a great many levels of meaning, and some of them are largely lost to a modern viewer.
Also, the art itself is wonderful. Look at the confident glow in John Singleton Copley's portrait of Elkanah Watson, as America's independence is confirmed:
Or Washington's cool, crossed-legged insouciance in Charles Willson Peale's portrait:
It's hard to go too far wrong with this kind of source material.
An odd little book that covers some related territory from a different angle is The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art.