In the USS Constitution Museum Theater last week, Ph.D. Sidney Hart, Senior Historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, presented an illuminating lecture about the bicentennial exhibition on the War of 1812, which will open at the National Portrait Gallery this June. Dr. Hart shared important portraits with interested Charlestown history buffs, highlighting their significance during the war, and linking the symbolism to causes of the war, including impressment.
There were works by American artists who depicted the heroes and battles scenes of the war, as well as works by Canadian and British artists. According to museum officials, “The British practice of impressing American merchant sailors stands as one of the central grievances leading up to the War of 1812. By 1811, the British Royal Navy had impressed at least 6,000 mariners who claimed to be citizens of the United States. In addition to impressments, Americans were dismayed by British agitation of the native population on the western frontier. Congress declared war on June 18, 1812.” The war ended two years later, finally allowing America to gain independence and move forward from its colonial past.
In the dark theater, viewers were mentally taken back 200 years, to the height of the war. “The War of 1812 was one of the strangest but most important wars,” said Hart. In the paintings he displayed, he said that the painters placed an emphasis on lightness and realism. “They wanted portraits done from life, and as close to the war as possible,” he added.
Some individuals, like James Madison, were famous before the war. But others, like Henry Clay, became famous. “I believe that if we had a time machine and went back to 1812 and sat in the gallery where Henry Clay said we should go to war with Great Britain, he would look like this,” Hart said, pointing to the large-scale portrait of the stern-looking Clay. Other portraits clearly featured qualities of arrogance, and Hart gave a detailed explanation as to why for each of them. He also pointed out interesting facts about the time period. “In 1800, America is fragile,” Hart said. “Thomas Jefferson dominates everything in this era. “The Indian presence plays a big role in the War of 1812. The Indians realized that if Americans have free rein it would invoke war,” he added.
As the audience listened intently to Hart’s depictions of the art as slides of portraits illuminated the dim room, it was clear that a brighter light shone in everyone’s heads with clarity and enlightenment on the War of 1812. Hart also made jokes that seemed to be part of an elite inner circle. “I call this the picture of the bad uncle,” Hart said about a portrait of William Hull. It invoked a modest chuckle from the group as Hart delved further into the exploration of the Northern Battles and Indian Wars.
One of the reasons the War of 1812 was so important to America is that it helped define our nation. “In 1812, the British Navy’s commissioned ships was 500. America had 17. This really was asymmetrical warfare,” Hart said. With not much more than fervor, American patriots Fought against a powerful nation, and despite the odds, won an overwhelming amount of land, and respect. America continues to be a leading country today, and perhaps in another 200 years, a future P.h.D. will showcase portrait’s of today’s heroes, and another group of history buffs will listen.