Down To The Sea

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The original colonies were thirteen, and also the first States; the first order for the creation of a navy was for thirteen warships; there were and still are thirteen stripes, and there were originally thirteen stars, on our flag; on our coat of arms a mailed hand grasps thirteen arrows, as do also the left talons of the eagle, while in its right is an olive branch with thirteen leaves; there were also thirteen rattles on the snake on the first American flag, with the motto “Don’t tread on me.” It was on February 13, 1778, in the harbor of Quiberon, that the American flag received its first recognition by a foreign government … thirteen years elapsed between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the inauguration of the first President, General Washington, in 1789; and the Louisiana Purchase from France includes the area prospectively covered by thirteen States…

Moran set the numerological theme in the very first painting of his series, The Ocean: thirteen gulls hover over the water, symbolizing the important events in American history linked with that number.

In his determination to present history in a chronological series of paintings, Moran was very much a child of his era. This was an artistic device much favored by sculptors, easel painters, and muralists in the nineteenth century. At the time Moran was working on his series, John Singer Sargent was doing a mural for the Boston Public Library depicting the development of religious thought from the pagan into the Christian era. And of course Moran would have been aware of the eight monumental historical paintings in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. Two of them, Robert Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims and John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus, deal with subjects that he included in his own series; a third, by William H. Powell, depicts the discovery of the Mississippi by de Soto, whose burial Moran was to paint.

Moran worked on his project almost until his death in the spring of 1901, less than two years after the event portrayed in the final canvas, the triumphal return of the United States fleet from the Spanish-American War. He had presented the paintings to his wife, but her claim to them was disputed after his death by the executor of the artist’s estate, and only after repeated legal battles was Mrs. Moran’s title secured. When she died in 1904, Theodore Sutro, who had been her counsel, came into possession of the paintings. In the late twenties, Paul Sutro, a nephew, presented them to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission with the stipulation that the collection be “hung at all times in a public gallery.” When he discovered that they were not being shown, he retrieved them and, in 1940, presented the set to the United States Naval Academy. There, cleaned and properly displayed, all thirteen may now be seen.

Sixty-three years ago—in 1904—the series was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. At that time the art critic of the New York Herald wrote: “The exhibition of these pictures of scenes connected with the history of the United States is not only an artistic but an educational event … It is hoped that the school children of the city will be taken to see and study them.” Nine years after these words were written, however, the Armory Show burst upon New York and America; within a generation the sudden popularity of the new styles it had introduced—Cubism, Fauvism—submerged the reputation of traditional painters like Edward Moran. Among most artists, critics, and gallery owners the idea of painting a picture that attempted to educate soon seemed quaint indeed, and Moran’s great series fell into disfavor.

The series is reproduced in this issue in its entirety, for the first time in more than half a century. Accompanying each painting is a quotation from a nineteenth-century American writer who was inspired by the same events that stirred the artist. Together the words and pictures constitute a document of a time when painters and poets gloried in recalling our past, and when historians, orators, and even reporters were not ashamed to use rhetoric to celebrate our nation’s history.

Moran's Landing of Lief Ericson in the New World in 1001

We come, the children of thy Vinland,
The youngest of the world’s high peers,
O land of steel, and song, and saga,
To greet thy glorious thousand years!
Across that sea the son of Erik
Dared with his venturous dragon’s prow;
From shores where Thorfinn set thy banner,
Their latest children seek thee now.
Hail, mother-land of skalds and heroes,
By love of freedom hither hurled,
Fire in their hearts as in thy mountains,
And strength like thine to shake the world!

* * *
What though thy native harps be silent,
The chord they struck shall ours prolong:
We claim thee kindred, call thee mother,
O land of saga, steel, and song!
—Bayard Taylor “America to Iceland”