Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our Banner in the Sky

Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861

The National Gallery's new exhibition ‘Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’ includes a version of this patriotic sunset, painted within a month of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.  As the Terra Foundation site explains, 'Union troops were out manned and their commander raised a flag of truce along with the American flag. The Confederate side responded by bombing the American flag and continued until the Union’s Major Robert Anderson lowered the American flag. Showing their loyalty to the Union, Anderson and his troops saluted the flag and sang Yankee Doodle. Northerners were outraged about the demeaning treatment of both the flag and the Union forces. The tattered flag became a symbol of the North’s resilience and artists used the image in their work. When the war was over, the flag was raised again over Fort Sumter in victory.'  In Church's painting, which was subsequently widely distributed as a lithograph, the North Star shines through a gap in the clouds and an eagle soars above the broken tree.  It resembles a painting Church completed a year earlier, Twilight in the Wilderness, that is easy to read as a premonition of war, with its dark and fiery sky over an unpeopled landscape. 

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860

The original painting Our Banner in the Sky (the National Gallery is showing a sketch) can currently be seen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition on The Civil War and American Art.  It immediately inspired imitations and continues to interest artists: Marc Handelman's 2005 version crops and inverts the image - 'a defiant gesture on the part of the artist to express his own ambiguity of feelings regarding national identity', according to the Saatchi Gallery.  (Another Saatchi artist, Ged Quinn, has recently made a version of Twilight in the Wilderness). The print below was clearly based on the elements of Church's composition but introduces a lone figure: 'a Zouave sentry watching from a promontory as the dawn breaks in the distance. His rifle and bayonet form the staff of an American flag whose design and colors are formed by the sky's light. Below, in the distance, is a fort - probably Sumter. The print is accompanied by eight lines of verse: When Freedom from her mountain height / Unfurled her standard to the air, / She tore the azure robe of night / And set the stars of glory there. / She mingled with its gorgeous dyes / The milky baldrick of the skies, / And striped its pure celestial white / With streakings of the morning light.' 

Pro-Union patriotic print: Our Heaven Born Banner, c. 1861

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