Friday, June 24, 2011

Supporting Cast

I was walking through the folk art gallery of the museum today and a little-noticed figure caught my eye. An unknown sailor in a painting celebrating Commodore Perry's victory on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. It ocurred to me that we pay so little attention to the supporting cast in these paintings. Here is a couple of noteworthy cast members in our gallery, beginning with the aforementioned sailor.

Perry is considered a hero for his naval brilliance and bravery in the midst of battle. His crew may have been more concerned with survival, judging from the terrified look on the face of the sailor in the peephole. His look stands in stark contrast to the stoic determnation of the lead actor in this historical drama.

We've seen this large, round banner meant to be carried in political parades on behalf of the Whig Party in the 1840s. In the scene, the artist included the Erie Canal as an example of the Whig program of internal improvements meant to ensure trade and commerce.

Standing in as the only person in this banner is a tiny figure at the edge of the canal, holding a long pole meant to (I presume) gauge the depth of the water in the lock. His role is tiny in the grander scheme of the banner and what it represents, but he is an effective stand-in for the legions of working Americans playing a vital role in the nation's economic life.

Two small, barely noticable figures at the edges of the action. Both hold keys to the meaning of the works, and like any supprting cast, draw attention to the main point or purpose of the paintng. The stories wouldn't be complete without them.

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