Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters’ Eyes

Written by Paul Staiti
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

This well-researched and elegantly written art-historical study, which examines the role painting played in promoting the ideals of the American Revolution to contemporary audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, manages to fascinate and educate in equal measure.  Staiti’s ‘portrait’ of the men—Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart—who were convinced that the production and collection of art was vital to the formation of the new Republic’s self-understanding, not only delves into their compelling biographies, but, by connecting their fates with those of history’s heroes, in particular George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, succeeds in highlighting the intricate symbiosis between art and ideology, as it manifested itself in the uncertain world of the late 18th century.  As a result, the book traces the idea of painting as representative of our modern self-consciousness and shows that our notion of political celebrity might well have had its roots in the Revolutionary period.