Final Project: Museum Wall Texts and Curatorial Essays for American Art: A New Look Class

April 27, 2016

General John Charles Frémont (1857) by Charles Loring Elliott

 

 

A traditional looking oil paint portrait of General John Charles Frémont (1857) by Charles Loring Elliott is included in the Brooklyn Museum's gallery for “A Nation Divided: The Civil War Era.” Frémont, an antislavery political radical, is depicted conventionally. He stares off pensively in the distance while seated on a chair with ornate carved armrests. His hand is tucked in his black overcoat, a pose used so often that it became a cliché of 18th century portraiture. This was used to indicate that the sitter was a calm but forceful political and/or military leader from an upper class background.

 

Frémont’s leftward stare could be an acknowledgement his multiple expeditions to the American West, role during the Civil War as the Union Commander of Department of the West, and service as Military Governor of California before the state joined the United States Union. His somber expression on his face may refer to his political campaign failures and how President Abraham Lincoln stripped him of his Union Commander position due to insubordination. The wall text describes how he “provoked the president's ire when he single-handedly confiscated the property and emancipated the slaves of pro-South Missourians.”

 

Frémont's mother, Anne Beverley Whiting, came from a wealthy Virginian family. His father, Charles Frémon, was a French-Canadian immigrant who had escaped from a British prison and was hired by Whiting's second husband, Major John Pryor, to tutor her. Their affair was a scandal and Frémont was born out of wedlock since his mother was not granted a divorce. After his father died, Frémont was raised by his mother and Black Hannah, an enslaved African American woman.

 

Clarissa Seymour (later Mrs. Truman Marsh) (1789) by Ralph Earl

 

 

Clarissa Seymour (later Mrs. Truman Marsh) by Ralph Earl is an oil painting from 1789 that depicts a wealthy young woman from Connecticut. She’s 17 years old in this portrait and is wearing a fashionable form-fitting outfit while seated outside against a scene of a wooded river bank. This choice of background may be a way to visually acknowledge her descent from Richard Seymour, one of the first British settlers of Hartford, Connecticut which is situated along the Connecticut River and one of the oldest cities in the United States (which was founded in 1637).

 

Despite Clarissa’s youth, the museum label claims that it is probably an idealized portrait since Earl painted in the English Grand Manner style, which believed in creating flattering depictions of elite subjects through the use of accessories, colors, compositions, facial expressions, postures, settings, symbols that would express their subject’s nobility. The Grand Manner style was also referred to as High Art Portraits since they were based on classical art approaches that generalized and idealized its subjects with harmony and restraint instead of copying from reality.

 

The texture of Clarissa’s clothing is vividly rendered in painstaking detail showcasing its light, sheer, embroidered, and fringed qualities which displays the sitter’s ability to afford luxurious European fabrics for British-style fashions. The upper part of her outfit is menswear-inspired.  She’s wearing an exquisite example of a caraco (a tight long sleeved jacket fitted to the waist) with a finchu (a triangular linen shawl worn around the shoulders and neck) pinned to it in order to cover up the low necklines that could be revealed by a tight-fitting dress bodice or light corset. Or she could be wearing buffon, an extreme form of a finchu that is starched or even shaped with wire to produce an exaggerated fullness that resembles a pouter pigeon’s breast, which was very fashionable at the time. A dark wide sash with gold fringe on the ends is tied around her waist to further emphasize her delicacy. Her hair is powdered (resulting in its light grey appearance) and elaborately shaped into the “hedgehog” style with curls piled on top of her head with long tendrils framing her chest. Her father manufactured hats, which may explain why she was so fashion forward. WIth her modest yet luxurious style, it is not surprising that she went on to marry Truman Marsh, a clergyman who became the highly respected Rector of the Episcopal Church in their hometown of Litchfield, Connecticut.

 

Clarissa Seymour’s life epitomizes the Republican Motherhood movement, the idea that the wives and daughters of American Revolutionary War patriots must embody the ideals of republicanism in order to pass these values onto succeeding generations. Her father, Major Moses Seymour, was a politician who became troop captain in the 17th Connecticut militia regiment and 5th cavalry in 1777 where he helped repel Major General William Tryon's raid on the Continental Army’s military supplies in Danbury, Connecticut and was present at the surrender of British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York. Some historians believe that this movement led to increased educational opportunities for women because it required women’s understanding of the meaning of “democracy,” “independence,” and “liberty.” Clarissa’s father played a key role in the plan to sell the Connecticut Western Reserve, an area in the Northwest Territory that eventually became part of Ohio, for $1.2 million in order to fund public education in the state and several of her family members supported the Litchfield Female Academy, one of the first schools for women in the United States whose innovative curriculum influenced the development of women’s education.

 

Despite their education, Republican Mothers were encouraged to remain in their domestic spheres to oversee the moral development and comportment of their spouses and children so their husbands and sons would behave honorably in their public lives for the greater good of all American citizens. Even though Clarissa did not have children she was remembered as “a noble mother” to members of her church and one of its major donors. She was seen as someone with “good common sense united with sound discretion, mildness united with firmness, liberality without extravagance, the highest style of Christian character with the greatest humility.” The male members of her family continued their family’s political legacy. Her brothers were a local postmaster and sheriff (Moses Seymour, Jr.), county sheriff (Ozias Seymour), Vermont Senator (Horatio Seymour), and Mayor of Utica / New York Senator / Erie Canal Commissioner (Henry Seymour). Her nephews included a Governor of New York and the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate for the 1868 election (Horatio Seymour) and a Chief Justice in the Connecticut State Supreme Court (Origen Storrs Seymour).

 

Yup´ik hunting hat (1870) from the Yukon River in Alaska

 

 

According to its museum label, the Yup´ik hunting hat (1870) empowers its wearer to “[become] a successful hunter and provide for his people [through] [acknowledging] and [supporting] respectful reciprocal relations” between humans and animals.” This sloping cone-shaped wooden hat with ivory and whalebone carvings of sea creatures attached to its top in long, curving forms, “[allows] [its] [wearer] to attract [...] seals and otters.” As inhabitants of the Arctic, one of the harshest climates on Earth, the Yup’ik must do everything in their power to survive. The Yup'ik hunting hat is a testament to this community’s resourcefulness and reverence for nature.  

 

Furthermore, the Yup'ik hunting hat demonstrates how understanding the interdependent connections among living things form Indigenous peoples’ unique heritages. scholar Janet Berlo explains that Indigenous people's legacies are built a upon “knowledge systems that have been developed out of thousands of years of living, dreaming, and thinking about their lands, waters, plants, animals, skies, and seas.” These knowledge systems explain “the fundamental structures of the cosmos, interrelationship of humans and other beings, the nature of spirit and power, and of life and death,” which have been used to develop rituals that help “make human beings effective in the most critical of activities---hunting, growing crops, creating families, working, […] curing diseases, making war, and accomplishing the journey through the world to the next.”

 

This headdress expresses the importance of sustaining respectful interdependent relations between all beings and natural elements so that subsistence economies can succeed. However, there is no word in the Yup’ik language for “subsistence.” Instead hunting, fishing and foraging are considered the anchors of Yup’ik life and culture—of yuuyaraq (way of life), which can also be translated as “the way of being a human.” They believe that following yuuyaraq requires respecting all living things because each entity provides sustenance to the others: land provides humans with animal meat; water provides humans with meat from sea creatures (fish, seals, whales); bodies of water provide drinking sources for all beings, and the lands and bodies of water provide fruit and vegetables for all. But even though Ellam Yua (the creator who made everything) gave to people the animals, they must still show proper respect to secure them as food by following certain rules governing these relationships. Carefully following the rules and pleasing the animal spirits who gave their lives for human consumption would result in increasing food sources and additional blessings for hunters. These rules address how to properly care for and eat an animal and how to treat weapons after animals are caught. Disrespect of fish was prevented by always placing them in a pan before they were carried into homes so as to avoid accidentally dropping them and water was always poured into the mouths of seals when they were brought into villages or homes to quench their thirst and honor them as sea creatures. It is believed that if a rule is not followed for a particular animal, then that food source will either become scarce or disappear entirely, depending on the intensity of the violation.

 

This explains why 23 Yup’ik fishermen violated a ban on the fishing of king salmon in 2012. Their lawyers framed their actions as a First Amendment issue: “If Yup’ik people do not fish for King Salmon, its spirit will be offended and it will not return to the river. A Yup’ik fisherman who is a sincere believer in his religious role as a steward of nature, believes that he must fulfill his prescribed role to maintain this 'collaborative reciprocity' between hunter and game. Completely barring him from the salmon fishery thwarts the practice of a real religious belief. Under Yup’ik religious belief, this cycle of interplay between humans and animals helped perpetuate the seasons; without the maintaining of that balance, a new year will not follow the old one."

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