Saturday, April 28, 2012

What sort of man was the American landscape supposed to produce? The key words that come to mind when viewing Frank Blackwell Mayer’s Independence (1858 – reproduced at the top of this article) are “rugged” and “self-reliant.” The subject is Squire Jack Porter and around him are the fruits of hard work. The American landscape was not (as the earliest colonists hoped) an Eden in which once could live by plucking things off trees. On the contrary, the land had to be tamed and worked. And so, the Squire is surrounded by examples of personal manufacture: a corncob pipe, a wooden bench, his wife’s knitting. Although the size of his porch suggests modesty, the rewards of his labour are his nice clothes. His expression is content but not self-satisfied. And beyond him, yet again, is the ubiquitous dense foliage of the American landscape. This is the model of the self-made “independent” man that the revolution was supposed to create.

If there is hope for the revolutionary ideal, I took it from one of the last paintings on display – Old Black Joe by Horace Pippin. Joe is a former slave and he babysits a young white girl who is tethered to him: the roles have been reversed and Joe is now free. Behind him is an abundant cotton field (no longer an image of oppression, but of profit) and above him the clouds part to provide the eternal reward of heaven. Old Joe has found the freedom that Squire Jack Porter enjoyed one hundred years before – the eternal promise of American liberty. As much of the United States struggles towards a future that offers a mix of abundance and conformity, it is once again to the magical landscape that the true pioneer-in-spirit returns. Squire Jack and Old Joe are the symbols of the republican simplicity and dignity that America so desperately needs to rediscover.

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