Friday, January 1, 2010

The Big Whig Banner

In an earlier post I talked about the profound impact of the Erie Canal on the folk art of New York State, focusing on the landscapes of Thomas Chambers. Among the other pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection that illustrate this phenomenon is our great Whig Campaign Banner by Terence Kennedy, painted in the 1840s. This piece came to us from the collection of Elie Nadelman, the modernist sculptor who collected folk art in the 1920s and 1930s and even opened one of the first folk art museums in the United States in Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, at the same time.

The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, revolutionized the way New Yorkers did business, as it allowed for much faster transportation of wares into and out of the state. Folk artists, like the trained landscape painters who preceded them, often depicted the canal, working from images that were disseminated through various print media and exploiting the new wonder visually for both its symbolic and aesthetic value.

Terence J. Kennedy (1820-after 1879) of Auburn, New York, included a vignette of the Erie Canal in our large campaign banner (about 70” wide) . This painting was probably the center section of a large rectangular banner carried in parades or at political gatherings during the 1840s. In this painting, the Erie Canal is of great importance – not only does it dominate the right side of the banner, but it helps to underscore the Whig belief that the development of coastal and internal transportation and the protection of home industries were vital interests to the growing Republic.

The banner also includes powerful symbols of a resurgent America poised to address its domestic challenges. Images of commerce, both maritime and land-based, appear in the ships at the left and the train at the right. Other symbols of agriculture and industry appear in the tools and equipment at the bottom of the canvas. Hovering over all of these images is, of course, a screaming bald eagle, representing the bold spirit of the country.

Heavy duty political propaganda, to be sure. But it is significant that the Erie Canal, which inspired a frenzy of canal construction in the northeastern United States, had come to symbolize America’s ingenuity and progress as a nation. Like so many other accomplishments of national importance, the canal was seized upon by political parties and used to every advantage. And folk artists like Terrence Kennedy readily and creatively supplied the images that Americans look to in order to decide the fate of the nation.

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