Thursday, December 3, 2009

America Guided by Wisdom

The actions of the United States government have a huge impact not just on its own citizens, but of all people. The decisions facing the President, in particular, are difficult yet of crucial importance for the entire world. We can hope the government is guided by wisdom and this is a hope that citizens have had since the founding of the country. Today many are sceptical or pessimistic on this score, but in the early days of the republic there was more belief and optimism. This positive attitude is nicely expressed in a wonderful allegory "America Guided by Wisdom," based on a design by John Janes Barralet.

John J. Barralet (ca. 1747-1815) was an Irish artist who came to Philadelphia about 1795. He had established a reputation as a landscape and historical artist in Dublin and London. When Barralet first arrived in Philadelphia he was hired as an engraver by Alexander Lawson and soon took up painting landscapes in and around Philadelphia. Among American engravers, Barralet is credited with inventing a ruling machine for work on bank notes. Barralet is the artist of this print and the engraving was done by Benjamin Tanner, one of the leading Philadelphia engravers of the early Federal period.

The print was issued just after the War of 1812, which was often called the “Second War of Independence” at the time. Following a series of naval victories and battles at Baltimore and New Orleans, Americans were infused with a new optimism based on a peace treaty that arranged for them to be left alone to develop their new country. This print uses symbols of republican virtues to express pride in the new country, paying tribute to the nation's growing industry and trade.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, educated viewers understood far more than we do about classical iconography, able to read and understand allegories such as this. However, the publisher felt descriptive text was needed and it helps provide us with information on the print. This text explains that the focus of the image is Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, who points to an escutcheon of the United States with the motto “Union and Independence,” emblazoned on a shield held by female figure with a feathered headdress, representing America. As the description says, it is by "Union and Independence" that "the country enjoys the prosperity signaled by the horn of plenty, at the feet of America." Just besides America is a spear and shield with the visage of Medusa.

To the right of this vignette is an equestrian statue of Washington at the entrance of a "Triumphal Arch." I am not sure how this works, but according to the descripion, this is "indicating the progress of the liberal arts." On the base of the statue is a plaque with Washington's birth and death dates, as well as the year he was inaugurated President.

To the left of Minerva and America is a tableau that is best explained by the printed descriptive text:
Commerce is represented by the figure of Mercury, with one foot resting on bales of American manufactures, pointing out the advantages of encouraging and protecting Ceres....
Ceres is the goddess of agriculture and she is surrounded by symbols of America's rich agricultural prosperity, including a plow and wheat sheaves and a barrel and bundles of other goods.

The navigation Mercury points to is represented by a number of ships, including an armed U.S. Naval vessel.

Finally, again as explained in the descriptive text,
The Bee Hive is emblematic of industry; and the femlae spinning at the cottage door, shews the first and most useful of domestic manufactures.

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