Images and Mythmaking

“For some scholars, public historical imagery supplies the myths and symbols that hold diverse groups in political society together.” –  David Glassberg, Public History and the Study of Memory

As I considered the question “how are myths made?,” which accompanied the readings for this week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the relation between image and myth, especially as it relates to American History.

During my time as an educator at the Brooklyn Museum I often taught from Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, a large scale image of Washington in the heroic pose of an orator.  When it was first created in 1796  the painting was copied many times and circulated widely with versions of the painting now hanging in the White House and in the National Portrait gallery. It has become one of the quintessential depictions of the first president. The portrait shows Washington dressed as a middle class man and surrounded by symbols of the American Republic (the flag, the eagle, copies of the Constitution and a history of the American Revolution), and was designed to heroicize Washington and promote the ideals of democracy.

“George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart. 1796

In many ways, heroic depictions of founding fathers by Stuart and other artists helped to create and solidify the mythic images we have of those figures today.  These works, including John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, have become the dominant images of historical figures and events and appear in textbooks and on American currency.

The reverse of the two dollar bill, which features John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence”, created between 1817 and 1819.
The reverse of the New Jersey state quarter. The image is based on Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, painted in 1851

That said, many of these popular depictions were created years after the subjects died and inaccurately portray historical events. As I think about images and the relation they have to mythmaking I wonder:

What role do dominant images of historical figures and events have on shaping the dominant narrative of those figures and events?

Also:

Most of the images we associate with the founding fathers lionize and even deify them. How does being surrounded by aggrandizing images of historical figures make it more difficult to accept revisionist histories of these figures?

One thought on “Images and Mythmaking”

  1. Matt, I really like your question about how being surrounded by images that lionize and deify historical figures can make alternative narratives difficult. Is it possible to offer a strong critique in the face of such striking images? What is the role of (written and live) interpretation in these critiques?

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