a short history of american images

UrlLucy Ives at Triple Canopy:

We Go for the Union is an anonymous, undated nineteenth-century American painting. Titled, by curatorial fiat, after the political banner at its right, it depicts a group of men who are each, in varying ways, skilled in the manipulation of paint.

One man (of greatest height and most costly attire) holds a palette and narrow brush for applying precise touches. To this auteur’s right, a black man in stained overalls holds a bucket of paint at the ready. This paint has been applied across the background of a painting within the painting, a political sign featuring the likeness of George Washington. At far left, a strangely proportioned, muscular figure with pinched head and blurred features laboriously grinds blue pigment against a stone. An orange horizon emanates through the workshop windows, indicating, if not a clearly identifiable hour, then, perhaps, the sublime.

In this scene the labor of painting is divided into three, with only one worker accorded the status of artist: The giant, yellow-jacketed professional limns august features instantly

recognizable as those of the union’s first president. The artist seems to work from memory, pausing in reserved admiration before the realistic image he apparently believes himself to have authored. Yet we know that this image is in fact a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous Athenaeum portrait, which Stuart himself never officially finished, instead copying it at least seventy-five times and selling each reproduction for $100.

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