WAR OF 1812 Gets Its Close-Up at Portrait Gallery

DOLLEY DANDRIDGE PAYNE TODD MADISON by Gilbert Stuart Oil on canvas 1804
White House Historical Association
DOLLEY DANDRIDGE PAYNE TODD MADISON by Gilbert Stuart Oil on canvas 1804

Pop quiz: See if any of these persons, events, battles and none such ring a bell.

Isaac Brock, Tenskewatawa (The Prophet), Red Jacket, Fort Erie, Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, James Lawrence, Thomas Macdonough, General Robert Ross, General Edward Pakenham, the Hartford convention or Leap No Leap, Lord Castleragh, the “Wellington of the Indians,” the Bayonne Decree, the Non-Intercourse Act (not what you might think), Spencer Perceval, the Battle of Beaver Dams, the Battle of Queenston Heights, the River Raisin Massacre, Battle of Sacketts Harbor, Provo Wallis, Lewiston and Youngstown and Manchester, Buffalo and Black Rock and the USS President.

No bells? You’re not alone, I’m embarrassed to say.

How about these?

The Battle of New Orleans (in addition to the Johnny Horton song), Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh, Oliver Hazard Perry, Stephen Decatur, the Battle of Lake Erie (“We have met the enemy, and he is ours” . . . “Don’t Give Up the Ship”), the Treaty of Ghent, Charlton Heston, James Madison, Dolley Madison and her red dress, the Burning of Washington, John Quincy Adams, Francis Scott Key (in addition to the park in Georgetown), “What so proudly we hail,” the Star-Spangled Banner, Fort McHenry.

Feel better now? A little iffy on the Treaty of Ghent? And what’s Charlton Heston doing here? (He played Andrew Jackson at least twice in the movies – “The President’s Lady” with Susan Hayward, playing his beloved wife Rachel, and in “The Buccaneer,” a Cecil B. DeMille movie which was more about the rascally pirate, Jean LaFitte (Yul Brynner), who helped Andy defeat the British at the aforementioned Battle of New Orleans.

Sometimes, we imagine we were there when the British occupied and burned Washington (at least most of the few government buildings and the White House as well as the offices of a newspaper which had been unkind to the British commanding officer). But the British also burned the towns Lewiston, Youngstown, Manchester, Buffalo and Black Rock — arsons which are less famous that our hometown blaze.

All of these people, events, decrees, happenings and pieces of history can be found in one form or another in “1812: A Nation Emerges,” the grand exhibition which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, artifacts (the red dress, a flag or two, decrees and proclamations, a compact and comprehensive catalogue, videos, — including one narrated by the Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey — and documents, now at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 27.

On the occasion of just celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which went on until 1815, blazing on oceans and lakes, the lower parts of Canada, and as far away as New Orleans, the NPG has come up with a vibrant exhibition that should excite the imagination of viewers with its depth, breadth and sweep, with its great art (yes, there is lots of it) and with a new — or renewed — sense of the young, bursting and eager American soul of the times.

Having said all that — forget about all those obscure facts as well as the celebrated ones. It’s just a way to get you into this story and get you to go and make you feel either very smart or not so smart. Go into this with a pure heart and sharp eye. It will feel like being in a De Mille epic just to be there, although one with smarts, intelligence, a point of view and a focus.

Note the subhead, “A Nation Emerges.” The War of 1812 is always confusing in its highlights — there’s big set pieces, like the burning of Washington, Francis Scott Key inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the post-peace-treaty victory by Jackson over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, the naval heroes at their finest — Decatur and Perry, as well as the above named Johnson who died bravely on his ship, the Chesapeake, and left us his immortal words, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

But the start of the war — in which President James Madison saw British restraints on U.S. commerce and shipping as a cause to start the war — are less noted. The war aims of the U.S. — including an invasion of Canada which was essentially a debacle, are less clear, meanwhile. The war in U.S. history is seen essentially as a kind of draw, and to the British, as a footnote, a theater of small importance. Neither Wellington nor C.S. Forester’s fictional hero Horatio Hornblower fought here, being busy fighting Napoleon. To the Canadians, it has some significant iconic value, but Canada has not had as many wars to choose from as their cousin to the South.

What you feel in the many rooms of the exhibition is a kind of vivid energy. The War of 1812 can be felt here as a kind of second wind birth of the nation — the founders played significant roles, but the results fed into a restlessness that brought America westward: it was a bloody invitation to expansion, imagination, and invention. All this can be seen in the exhibition — beginning with a rather bucolic painting by George Beck depicting Georgetown and the budding City of Washington in 1795.

The war itself is loud — you can almost smell the gunpowder from frigate broadsides, feel the billowing sails of the USS Constitution, hear the roar of cannons on ships and the screams of men in battle on land and sea. “Those cannons make a lot more noise than even The Who,” a commentator says to Daltrey who narrates a video on the battles on Lake Erie.

The War of 1812 resulted in heroes, myths and policies, such as Jackson and John Quincy Adams who helped negotiate the treaty at Ghent. The Native Americans in the eastern United States suffered badly in the conflict, no matter which side they took — including U.S. allies who ended up on Jackson’s “Trail of Tears.”

There were plenty of heroes and sad stories to go around: Tecumseh, called by one observer “the Wellington of the Indian tribes,” fell in battle, as did the beloved British generals Robert Ross near Baltimore and Edward Pakenham (Wellington’s brother-in-law) at New Orleans, and, even in the end Decatur, killed in a duel because of, but years after, the war. We learn, too, that Herman Melville was a sailor in the war and that Key became a noted prosecutor.

We learn again that Gilbert Stuart was a genius, perhaps the most brilliant and evocative portrait painter of his time, if you discount Gainsborough from an earlier time. The famed painter of Washington was also a noted painter of the heroes and generals of the war, and you can always tell when it’s a Stuart: the faces take on energy, passion and hyper-character, and there’s music in their cheeks and eyes, martial or otherwise. His portraits of fallen naval heroes James Lawrence and Thomas McDonough, of Decatur and Dolley (Madison) are almost precursors to the not-so-distant impressionists. Only Rembrandt Peale can rival him in America.

The exhibition is, in the end, about history, what you know and what you don’t know. It echoes loudly in our own sense of American self even if, like this writer, you’re an immigrant. It’s a portrait of an America about to take its place in the world after a war, an America rich in imagination and energy, warts and all. ★

“1812: A Nation Emerges” is on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery -- www.npc.si.edu -- through Jan. 27, 2013.

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