By Ian Simpson
(Reuters) – The War of 1812 may be the United States’ forgotten conflict, but an unprecedented art museum exhibit shows that there was a lot more to it than the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The wide-ranging show, “1812: A Nation Emerges” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, brings together more than 100 paintings, sculptures, artifacts and documents to explain the little-known war and its deep impact on the infant United States.
The core of the treasures are scores of works from what curator Sidney Hart called “the Golden Age of Anglo-American portraiture,” including a dozen pieces by early American master Gilbert Stuart.
“It’s art telling history, that’s a lot of what we do,” Hart told Reuters on a tour of the exhibit, the first major show to tell the story of the war with artifacts from the United States, Britain, Ireland and Canada.
The exhibit opened 200 years almost to the day after the newly formed and fragile United States declared war on the British Empire, one of the mightiest powers of the age.
The David-and-Goliath match was a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, where the main antagonists were France and Britain.
Americans resented interference by former colonial master Britain in their overseas trade, including seizure of ships and sailors, and British backing of Native American tribes against U.S. expansion.
The exhibit underscores the rawness of the American continent with a 1795 George Beck painting showing the future U.S. capital as a scattering of huts in a near-wilderness.
The show features portraits of the soldiers, sailors, warriors and statesmen in the two-and-a-half years of four-sided fighting among Americans, Canadians, Native Americans and Britons.
They include portraits of “War Hawk” congressmen Henry Clay and John Calhoun; future presidents John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson; and one of the show’s gems, a Sir Thomas Lawrence painting of British Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London.
“If we had another Smithsonian ‘Night at the Museum’ hopefully these people would all recognize each other,” said Hart, referring to the 2006 movie about museum exhibits that come alive.
Fighting was scattered across the vast North American interior, centered on ineffectual U.S. efforts to invade Canada. Naval battles saw powerful frigates of U.S. design defeat British ships, shocking the world’s top sea power.
On display is a wooden model of the most famous of the warships, the USS Constitution, or “Old Ironsides,” that was in the Oval Office when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
ROCKET’S RED GLARE
The 1814 British naval attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry is brought to life by a hand-colored aquatint by John Bower showing the nighttime assault. Also on hand is a model of a British Congreve rocket used in the assault.
Seeing the U.S. flag wave over the fort throughout the bombardment inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem, with its description of “the rocket’s red glare.” His original manuscript and a lithograph portrait of Key are in the show.
The war ended with the signing in December 1814 of the Treaty of Ghent, with the pre-war status quo unchanged. A U.S. copy of the document, complete with red seals and signatures, is in the exhibit.
Hart said what kept the war from seeming to be a draw for Americans was Jackson’s decisive defeat of a British force at New Orleans in January 1815.
News of the victory arrived in Washington at the same time as that of the Treaty of Ghent, fueling the public’s feeling of national score-settling with Britain, he said.
The War of 1812 gave a jolt to American identity, with the first mention of Uncle Sam as a national symbol in a pamphlet that is included in the show. The war also cleared the way for booming U.S. economic growth and expansion that led to the devastation of Native American tribes.
The war “settled a whole lot on how America perceived itself and how it would act,” Hart said.
Among other commemorations of the war in Washington, the Canadian Embassy is hosting a multimedia presentation.
Canada also is marking the bicentennial through commemorations that include a special silver dollar coin, a new national monument, funding for re-enactments and even a mobile phone app.
The National Portrait Gallery show ends January 27, 2013.