The Art of Revolutions

Of all the things to get me out of bed before 7:30 on a Saturday morning, you can bet a conference discussing the intersection of art and revolution would be near the top of the list. Hosted by the American Philosophical Society, this conference expanded on the concepts unearthed when putting together the Curious Revolutionaries, or the Peales of Philadelphia, exhibit.

I missed the keynote on Thursday night and the first day of paper presentations on Friday so I was only present for the Saturday sessions and the closing remarks. But that was ok because I had more space to digest the paper abstracts that were presented. Afterwards, descendants of the Peale family were to donate more artifacts or papers to the American Philosophical Society, but if it happened, I missed it as I was caught up in sandwiches and discussing Alternate/Virtual Reality and it’s potential impact on smaller museums.

*quick note: my only information was from the panel presentations. I have not read the full text of the papers presented.


A full program of events can be found at the event page of the APS’s website:

You can watch the segments live at this link:


Paper #1: Gravestones as War Monuments

The first paper of the day was on graveyards and the active role that tombstones played, as pieces to memorialize and contextualize events, but also as propaganda used by the colonists to make statements about where they stood during the whole unpleasantness of the war. One example that was used was of the tomb of a young boy, maybe 6 years old, whose family had been driven from Boston while the British captured it, and he had died in the subsequent outbreak of disease. His tombstone read something like, “Here lies Tommy Smith, who died in exile from the cruel occupation of his city.” Another point raised – which had never occurred to me before – was that during what we call the Revolution, the colonists had no single term for it: rebellion, civil war, the Unpleasantness. These tombstones and grave markers, therefore, helped provide a common language to their local communities.


This gravestone instructs the audience to view the Reverend as a martyr, but the stone was also erected well after the Revolution, in 1938, with the benefit of hindsight.


Paper #2: Diamonds and Democracy

The second paper of the day discussed how an early portrait of Queen Victoria rebutted and asserted her dominance over the revolutions of 1848, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and the Hanover Settlement in 1858, which included a custody battle over crown jewels with her uncle, who ruled Hanover. Her jewels both reinforced her sovereignty  and also reminded people of the Crown’s endurance through these upheavals. Someone also observed in Paper #3 that Queen Victoria is painted inside, like most women were represented, while her husband Prince Albert was painted in the great outdoors.

Park, George Harrison, c.1848-1888; HM Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

Another interesting historical note: her crown in this portrait, made for her uncle King William IV, has been worn by only women since.


Paper #3: Revolutionary Penelopes-Patriotic Seamstresses in 19th C. Italian Art

This paper raised an interesting point of how women were depicted in art during the Italian Revolution (Unification?), but the observations are more broadly applicable, I think. Often women are portrayed on the sidelines while doing some sort of work with their hands – knitting, sewing, etc. These images are an interesting combination of art history and the culture of textiles, and they show how these domestic acts become acts of revolution that women played during these revolutions. While the men went off to fight the good fight, it was the women who organized, who developed the revolutionary ideas, who gave the support, who made things happen. Someone observed that in the previous paper, Queen Victoria is contained safely in inside places in her portraiture, while men were depicted outdoors. In fact, if you think of women during Revolutions, you think either of Betsy Ross, who allegedly sewed the very first American flag, and if you think of the French Revolution, you think of Madame DeFarge, a character from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities who is famous for knitting in front of the guillotine. I’m not doing this paper justice (nor have I read the whole thing) but I would also be interested to know how this depiction of women and textile arts intersects with the ideas of Republican Motherhood.


Although painted in the 20th Century, this shows Betsy Ross in a partnership with the men in creating and manifesting the ideals of the Revolution. Placed indoors, which was the woman’s realm, she works to support the men (as evidenced by the portrait above the mantel) and to instruct future generations in patriotism, as evidenced by the child.


Paper #4: Parades as Persuasion

This paper discussed New York’s parade celebrating the Constitutional Convention, during which the Constitution was ratified. Each city’s parade presented its own views on what they wanted the Constitution to be and New York was no exception. Except, unlike other localities, the parade in New York happened during the referendum, not after. While historians tend to focus on the commonalities of the various parades, this paper tends to emphasize the differences. There is a lot more research to be done about the particular parade route and the people involved. Did the parade really celebrate artisans alone? What about the various connections its organizer, Richard Platt, had? To contrast, Charles Willson Peale organized the parade in Philadelphia and he wanted an entirely American affair – porganizations, textiles, paraphernalia that originated in America. New York, on the other hand, was not so restricted, celebrating finance and free trade. I got the impression that the paper was an interesting union between both propaganda and finance, but don’t quote me on that.


The only extant artifact from the New York parade


Paper #5: What have we to do with Rome: The Politics of Art, Spectacle, and Peale’s Triumphal Arch

CWP had been tasked with creating a magnificent arch to celebrate the peace between Great Britain and America right after the Revolution. A man of grand ideas, the arch was a spectacle, but not in the good way it turns out. See, it was made entirely out of wood, but the rockets and fireworks he had planned to go off were triggered early and the entire thing went up in a conflagration that sparked debate for years surrounding the workmen’s compensation for time and injury as well as the original purpose of the arch. I admit that this was the one paper where my attention wandered the most so the brilliant conclusions drawn or conjectured completely flew past me. You can read a little more on Peale’s Arch here and here.


Note the SPQP: Senātus Populusque Philadelphia – “The Senate and People of Philadelphia

Paper #6: Visualizing Permanence: Architectural History and the French Revolution

This paper raised an interesting point that I will try to articulate. In many depictions of the destruction of the Bastille during the French Revolution, the Bastille is a looming edifice in the center of the canvas while people cluster around the top and bottom of it, intent on its dismantling. But the impact of the image is from the physical presence of the Bastille, so it has to be whole in its depiction of its destruction for maximum impact. It is an interesting observation and referenced a couple of French artists with whom I am unfamiliar but who had various representations of the destruction of the Bastille.


For a full impact of the French Revolution and the destruction of the Bastille, this painting’s impact is carried by the weight of the thing that was destroyed.


Closing Comments:

  • The papers themselves were more nuanced than the presentations.
  • How do you globalize/regionalize these concepts? This is, in many ways, the eternal question.
  • There is a difference between action itself and ways of dealing with it
  • Do we construct different narratives when artifacts/material culture get involved? Does it change the commemoration story?
  • The conference was interestingly interdisciplinary – the papers were rooted in their fields, though the topics were interdisciplinary – history as history, art hist as art hist – but it is the conversation between these disciplines where interesting things happen. We may approach the same object differently depending on its context – in an art museum vs in an historical setting.
  • Every object has a story, but also limitations because of our abilities to form questions and frame those stories.
  • What was missing from the conference? The conferences were primarily East Coast, white, anglophilic centric. Other uprisings that would have been interesting would have been Rissian, the Indus Valley, Native American, something west of the Mississippi; or nonpolitical revolutions (Marx, Lenin), medicine, the Industrial Rev.
  • How do you tell the story when there are few objects remaining?
  • Historical fiction came from piles of unknown things, giving voice to fragments that can’t speak for themselves.
  • What stories do smaller fragments have that larger objects lack?


I’m very intrigued by all of the topics discussed and wished I had more time to delve into research into all of these things. It was especially interesting to see the different ways people saw Art intersect with Revolution, and I think it only fitting that it happen under the auspices of Charles Willson Peale, who unifies these broadly disparate concepts.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 7.18.18 PM



Image Source: Gravestone

Image Source: Queen Victoria

Image Source: Betsy Ross

Image Source: Society of Pewterers’s%20triumphal%20arch&f=false

Image Source: Peale’s Arch

Image Source: Demolition of the Bastille, by Hubert Robert

Image Source: Charles Willson Peale self portrait



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