- Historic Sites
Footnotes To History
Not every memorable historic moment is on a grand scale. Here, a look at some of the bizarre, true sidelights that add sparkle to the larger picture.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
I like to think that had I been born in an earlier time, I would have been a great historical painter. I have a real gift for composing epic scenes, I enjoy rendering minute detail, and I would have had no moral conflicts about portraying people as handsomer than they really were. How I would have loved to paint the coronation of Napoleon, or an allegorical homage to the opening of the Erie Canal with joyous angels looking down from the heavens. Ah, well...
The truth is, the world no longer needs artists to record its momentous events. It has the camera. The camera does an adequate job, I suppose. It certainly produces pictures faster than an artist can—even an abstract expressionist needs more than a tenth of a second to complete a painting—but the camera has one serious limitation; it can only record what appears before its lens.
The creative artist, on the other hand, can reproduce anything he can imagine. His mind’s eye can see through brick walls and closed doors, and can even travel back through time. Of course, not every creative artist can conjure up the past convincingly. It takes someone with enthusiasm for pictorial research, biography, and history, and an understanding of the human psyche. It also takes someone who owns at least one book on How to Draw Hands.
I own three.
In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, acting without any authority from his superiors, gave orders to Commodore George Dewey that resulted in a decisive naval victory over the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. With the Spanish-American War now under way, TR resigned his post to raise the volunteer cavalry regiment he called the Rough Riders. Before setting off for Cuba, the badly nearsighted adventurer carefully packed many extra pairs of his pince-nez eyeglasses and had others sewn into the lining of his uniform.
Enrico Caruso managed to sing one performance of Carmen before the 1906 earthquake cut short the San Francisco opera season. The tenor was in the St. Francis Hotel when the first shock hit, and he ran terrified into Union Square with a towel around his neck for protection while drawing spiritual sustenance from a signed portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that he cradled in his arms. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried, and on checking out of the hotel Caruso vowed never to return to San Francisco. He never did.