Friday, April 29, 2011

Gather the Bones, 8: Congratulations to the Royal Couple

Benjamin West (1738--1820) was the tenth child of a frontier innkeeper. Not the origins that you'd expect of a man exhibiting under Royal patronage in London 34 years later. On the other hand, his mother was 41 when he was born. Mrs. West came from a Pennsylvania Quaker family, but married the Anglican, John West, in 1719, for which she was read out of Meeting as a "fornicator." In spite of its being an Anglican wedding, Benjamin West's baptismal certificate was never afterwards produced. Admittedly, he never actually had to do so. He married an Anglican communicant in good standing, and under Hardwicke's Law and ecclesiastical law as now aligned with statute, he was not asked to produce it; nor did he have to do so at the baptism of his own children.)

Make of that what you will  --obviously, in the fashion of a Nineteenth Century novelist writing for a pastor who wants something to read to the congregation after service, I'm trying to imply something that I can't just straight out say-- , let's move on to just what, exactly, he was exhibiting in 1772: not a royal commission, but rather one from Thomas Penn, Proprietor of Pennsylvania: Penn's Treaty With the Indians

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Via
This famous image graced many late Colonial American homes. Of course, most couldn't afford full-scale colour reproductions and settled for woodprints. Originals are found for sale on auction sites, and reproductions are widely available online:

Via Moby's Newt, Ltd.
As is standard with woodprints, the directions are reversed. I don't think that that is always some accidental consequence of the technology, either.

So, let's look at this image. Ostensibly, this is Pennsylvania's founding proprietor, William Penn (1638--1717) making a treaty under the Shackamaxon Elm with Tamanend, or Tammany, Turtle Clan Chief Sachem of the Leni Lenape, or Delawares. No copy of this treaty survives in the Penn's archives, and we can even doubt that it happened as a historical event. That doesn't make the painting go away, though, and the first point of interest here is that Penn was only in America in 1680--4 and 1700--02. The fact that West chooses to represent Penn as a man closer to 60 than to 45 is, thus, either a pretty obvious mistake by a painter who was well known for his research, or a deliberate choice of a man who often sacrificed strict historical accuracy for deeper truths. Ordinarily, West preferred to make his  allegorical statements as clearly as possible, but this painting is a commission, and it is Thomas Penn talking to us more than West.

So what do we make of the "mistake" over Penn's age? The fact that Philadelphia is shown as a going concern in the background suggests rather strongly that this painting is actually set during his second visit. Tamanend has been said to have died as late as the 1750s (he shows up, for example, at the climax of Last of the Mohicans, set in 1758), but the traditional story  has him immolating himself on his own funeral pyre. That's a bit of mythologising, and what documents we have suggest a death in 1698. So Tamanend isn't in the painting. But then, he's not in the painting's title, either.

Now: about that reversal. Socrates tells a story about Hercules: once, when he was young, the great hero ran into two chicks on the road who totally wanted to do him: one was Vice, the other Virtue. Well, I guess he'd have to marry Virtue before he saw some action, because that's her thing, but Vice, I hear, is easy. Anyway, Socrates ends his story by saying that you can tell from what you've heard of the rest of Hercules' career which choice he made. Now, Socrates could be an earthy guy, and he was telling this story to his pupil, Plato, who was a bit of prig, and also not into girls. So even though we have this story from Plato, this might be one of these cases where his old teacher stops being a sockpuppet and says something that Plato doesn't really intend to say. Or maybe not. Times change, and so do perceptions of old Hercules.

Antonio Caracci, The Choice of Hercules, via The Epicurean Dealmaker
Virtue, not surprisingly, is in white, while Vice, that shameless hussy, is in red. Virtue is also on Hercules' left, which is the bride's side. I guess Caracci has a viewpoint. Unfortunately, if you do a woodprint, the directions are reversed. Talk about sending one message to the rich, another to the poor! West was enormously influenced by Nicholas Poussin, who basically imitated this canvas in order to put various allegorical statements in the background. Or at least so I gather. The positioning remained the same, though.

Not one of West's more Internet-famous paintings. Thank Heavens for album covers, and Hyperion's online catalogue!
Now the woodprint will show Hercules choosing virtue! I mean, what were those old Catholic painters thinking? Probably nothing good. Now that West has taken an interest, Vice has to try a lot harder!

Of course, this might be a crazy coincidence. Who am I to make a bold claim that this well-known painting is deliberately reversed? Well, let's look at West's big painting, his claim to fame: The Death of Wolfe.

Driving a little traffic towards one Professor Fedoruk at my alma mater
An outdoor painter doesn't want the Sun in his eyes, and doesn't need to have it there, because obviously he wants the light for painting! It's also very appropriate for an evening death scene if the West, on the left of the painting, is lit up, while darkness and gloom envelopes the East, direction of mo(u)rning. I could go on, but better people than I have done this painting to death. (Ha!) It's even apparently on the wallpaper at Temple Hall, albeit mis-hung, a recurrent problem. Let's look at Treaty instead: gloomy as Death is brilliantly-lit. That, of course, would be because the painter is facing south, looking directly into the Sun, and reversing the the expected directions. Indians stand on the right hand side of the painting, in wilderness as opposed to civilisation, so the right is, counter-intuitively, but quite correctly, the west side. Penn and his party, on the left, is on the east side. It seems like a great deal of trouble, although of course West isn't actually painting at the scene, and so isn't staring into the Sun in the southern sky.

Now that I've looked at the overall painting, details, clockwise from the middle. In the foreground, bow and arrows. The common interpretation is that these signify the savage Indian. I'd call that a little forced even if we couldn't look to West for a refutation in the form of The Savage Chief, sometimes also called the Mohawk Apollo: 

Via another fascinating blog
West actually described this painting late in life, but my authority is the brilliant Ann Uhry Abrams, who also first noticed the reversal of direction in West's Choice of Hercules. Abrams established that this painting is intended to mirror the Apollo Belvedere and thus assimilate the supposed "savage chief" with the figure of Apollo. More to the point, we get the clearest possible statement of West's iconography of Indian weapons. The bow is for hunting; tomahawk and musket are for war. Our hero is saying goodbye to the wife who nurses his child at her breast, and to his faithful hunting dog as he girds himself for war. Will he return? Oh, the melodrama! But, point: the bow and arrow are for the chase. That's why they're the weapons of Apollo's twin sister, as well. Artemis is the goddess of the hunt and of the maiden. And in the sense that they're related (and they are!) she is the goddess of the virgin, in her persona of bridesmaid come to the altar of a spring day. That's why at least Eighteenth Century Anglicans of good anti-Papist bent thought that the Catholic practice of honouring Mary as the Queen of the May was a survival of an old Greek celebration of Artemis as the goddess of May. Of course, Americans of the 1770s were good Protestants and did not celebrate Mary on May Day. They celebrated Saint Tammany's Day, instead.

Moving around the painting, you can see two young Englishmen to foreground left. Notice the absence of any foregrounded people taking attention away from the central group in Death. 

I hope this link sells some art for Steve Art Gallery, notwithstanding the website!
Now, you take West's Regulus, and you can see that he wasn't afraid to play with the idea that the central figure of the painting has to be in the middle. Regulus was one of those brave Romans of old, blah blah blah. On the other hand, John Wilkes was, in West's view, an irresponsible troublemaker. I'm going with the interpretation that this painting is best read as showing the "real" Regulus departing to his fate in Carthage, while a "fake" Regulus in the middle represents Wilkes receiving the mistaken adulation of the crowds. I'd pull out yet another of West's historical paintings (Agrippina Landing at Brindisium -another clever statement on contemporary British politics) to support my argument, but this post is image-heavy enough already.

So Treaty, I'm saying, might not be "about" the central group. Well, let's look at these guys. This is the central, lighted image of the painting. Of course it is. Everyone knows that Indian treaties are done at a council fire. Except that the central image of the painting is no fire, but rather a brilliant piece of white cloth. That's odd. Maybe West didn't understand that while Indians make treaties around fires, they give clothing to the bride's family as a wedding gift. (I tried to find the classic woodprint of a Mohawk wedding to link to here, and instead found that a surprising number of people wear Mohawks at their weddings.) And that brings us around to our righthand side (but left-hand side when you reverse the painting into a woodprint) group: an Indian mother with her baby, and a bare-chested maiden, just come into marriageable age, I'd say, given that she's wearing pendant earrings. (At least, marriageable by the pedophiliac standards of old-timey aristocratic marriages.)

William Penn returned to America in the company of his second wife, Hannah Margaret Callowhill (1671--1726). His first wife, Gulielma Maria Springett, had died in 1694, and he left his sons by that marriage at home. John Penn, "the American" was born there to Hannah. William, Junior, William Penn's eldest son by Gulielma, followed his father to America and was governor there for two years before departing in disgrace for unknown reasons. This began the breach between the two branches of the Penn family that continued through court cases over ownership of estates in Ireland as well as Pennsylvania itself. Ultimately, Hannah's surviving sons, John, Thomas, and Richard, ended up with Pennsylvania, while William, Junior's son, Springett, received "only" 56,000 acres in the vicinity of York, Pennsylvania, as well as a modicum in Ireland.

What has this to do with the painting? Well, the commission of 1772 celebrates the secure and solid Penn control of Pennsylvania. It's not solid and secure if there are aggrieved family members still at large. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that by 1772, everyone in that painting, both the sons of the two wives of William Penn, and the semi-anonymous Indians on the other side are satisfied that the terms of the Treaty have been satisfied. How did that come to happen? Well, how is it that Benjamin Franklin's painting appears on the wall at Temple Hall, where we would expect Judge Marmaduke Temple to celebrate his ancestors. Judge Temple, of course, "comes from nothing." That's how we see him, and even Lauren Groff, so eager in other cases to ferret out matrimonial irregularities, seems to accept it.

I don't. And, I think, for good reason. But for now, let's leave it with this. The Penn's Indian treaty for Pennsylvania was a marriage treaty with Turtle Clan. That, I think, is what this painting is saying, and very clearly. I'm certainly not the first to allege that there are "Indian princesses" involved in the story of a family that couldn't always keep it in their pants. Where I'm going to take this will be a bit more adventurous than unsourced allegations, however.

For now, the painting stands by itself, not as a statement of some encoded, lost historical fact. (Me and Dan Brown --like brothers from another mother!) It stands as a statement, read, embraced, understood, and celebrated in America as the country moved towards Revolution; a statement about how differences of family, race, and even culture are bridged at the marriage altar. (This comes later.)

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