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The portraitist who popularized the steamship. The failed painter who invented the telegraph. The Black sailor who gave his life to protest British occupation. 

The stories behind some works in our collection reveal surprising connections to key events and figures in the early history of the United States. 

From the Native peoples lobbying to keep their homelands to immigrants facing challenges in their new home, artists used these works to shape American identity, advocate for change, and reckon with our nation’s stories. 


1737: The Walking Treaty forces the Lenape people out of their homeland

Three small children with pale pink skin sit and stand among a group of animals to our right as a group of eight indigenous people with light brown skin gather with eight white-skinned men near a riverbank in the distance to our left in this horizontal painting. The children and animals take up the right two-thirds of the composition. They gather on a flat-topped spit of land, which is covered in grass. All three children have blond hair and rounded features. Two sit on the ground at the bottom center of the painting. The largest animal is a caramel-brown bull, which stands next to a pale golden lion. The other animals are smaller in scale, and include a tiger, wolf, sheep, goats, cows, bears, and a jaguar, all sitting or standing at rest around the bull and lion. At the top center of the group of animals, one child stands over the lion’s back and has one arm around the tiger’s shoulders, and another child at the lower center touches the jaguar’s nose. A tree with olive-green, rust-red, and harvest-yellow leaves grows up the right edge of the canvas, in front of a tall, forest-green bush. On another spit of flat-topped, elevated grassy land to our left, six of the indigenous people stand in a row, wearing feathered headdresses. Two more kneel in front, creating a U-shape. The two in front wear loin cloths, and all eight wear gold earrings and necklaces. They face a gathering of eight men wearing tricorn hats, long coats, waistcoats, knee-length britches, and stockings in shades of gray, blue, white, brown, and orange. One of these men hold up a roll of cloth lifted out of a chest. Trees with spindly trunks and golden yellow canopies reach into the top corner of the painting along the left edge. The river extends into the distance beyond this group, with pale, sage-green hills carpeted in trees. Puffy white clouds float across a sky that deepens from pale shell pink along the horizon to light blue along the top. The features of the animals and children are painted simply and appear rather flat, giving them an almost cartoonish look.

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1834, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1980.62.15

The first thing you noticed in American folk artist Edward Hicks’s painting Peaceable Kingdom may have been the lion’s layered haircut or the small child petting a leopard. Hicks made some 60 paintings in which humans and animals coexist, inspired by a story from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah. 

But look to the left, and you’ll notice what seems to be a meeting between Native Americans and colonists. The parallel scenes suggest that Hicks is comparing one group to the animals and the other to the humans. 

The meeting in the background represents the Treaty of Shackamaxon or Great Treaty. According to legend, Lenape (or Lunaapeew) Chief Tamanend and William Penn, founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, met under an elm tree along the Delaware River. They agreed on how to divide the land, allowing the groups to live peacefully as neighbors.

Whether or not that story is true, shortly after Penn’s death in 1718, his sons executed the Walking Purchase or Walking Treaty of 1737, forcing the Lenape people off their homeland.

Paul Revere, Henry Pelham, The Boston Massacre, 17701770

Paul Revere, Henry Pelham, The Boston Massacre, 1770, hand-colored engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.9042

1770: The Boston Massacre

While better known for his work as a silversmith, Paul Revere also made engravings, etched prints that could be easily reproduced and distributed. This print depicts the Boston Massacre, a 1770 confrontation between British soldiers and locals who had grown frustrated with the occupation. 

The five men whom British soldiers killed that day are listed at the bottom of the print as “unhappy sufferers.” They include Crispus Attucks, a sailor and ropemaker believed to be of Black and Native American descent. Attucks quickly became a martyr and hero, one of the first to die for American independence. In other versions of this print, Attucks is identified with a darker skin tone. Revere and others used the print as propaganda to argue for freedom from British rule.

A light-skinned man, woman, boy, and girl, and a brown-skinned man sit and stand around a table spread with papers and a map in this horizontal portrait. The light-skinned man sits on a red upholstered chair at the table to our left, and his body faces our right in profile. His legs are crossed, and he rests his right elbow, closer to us, on the back of the chair. He has a sloping, rounded nose, dark eyes, jowls along his jawline, and his closed mouth juts forward. His left arm rests on an open pamphlet on the table next to a sword with a delicate silver hilt. To our left, the young boy stands also looks to our right in profile, next to the older man's chair. The boy wears a dusky rose-pink suit with a white lacy collar. With his right hand, he pulls back a dark green cloth covering a globe on a wooden stand along the left edge of the canvas. The woman sits at the right side of the table, across from the man. She has dark eyes, full cheeks, a double chin, and her pale lips are closed. She wears a voluminous ivory satin gown and petticoat with a black lace shawl, and an ivory cap with a satin bow covers her gray hair. She points to a spot on a map on the table with a closed fan held in her right hand. The young girl, wearing a gauzy white dress with a pine-green sash at the waist, stands on the far side of the table near the woman, holding the curling edges of the map. Behind the women, the brown-skinned man wears a rust-orange and gray uniform, and stands with one hand tucked into his vest in the shadows at the edge of the composition. His features are indistinct but he faces our left in profile. The room has a gold-and-yellow checkerboard floor, and a red cloth drapes from columns frame the scene to each side. It is unclear whether a river view at the back of the room is seen through an open window or door, or if it is a large painting behind the people.

Edward Savage, The Washington Family, 1789-1796, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.2

1790: The Capital moves to Washington

Edward Savage began this portrait of The Washington Family only months after George Washington was inaugurated as the nation’s first president. 

George and Martha Washington posed for Savage in New York City, then the country’s capital. But the painting is set at the family’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. We see the Potomac River in the background. A map on the table refers to plans to move the capital to Washington, DC.

The Black man standing to the right may be one of George Washington’s enslaved attendants, Christopher Sheels. He was one of the 317 people the Washingtons enslaved at Mount Vernon. 

We look across a cavernous room with a half-domed ceiling where more than a hundred men are gathered at desks and theater-like boxes in this horizontal painting. Almost all of the men have pale, peachy skin and wear black suits with white high-pointed collars. The desks curve in a half-circle facing our left, where two candelabras sit on a dais, a canopied space with polished columns. Seven more columns lining the rounded space are also speckled with fawn brown, bronze, copper, and muted moss green. They have white capitals carved with leaves ands scrolls. Crimson-red curtains hung between the columns have been gathered up along their centers so they drape down to each side. The space is lit by a three-tiered chandelier near the center of the composition. The chandelier has been lowered and a man, backlit in silhouette, stands on a ladder and reaches for a light on the top tier. The other men sit singly or in groups at the desks or gather in small groups throughout the space. The D-shaped rows of desks are enclosed within a curving, waist-high wall. To our right, on our side of the wall, a pair of boys or men lean over an open box that is lit inside. A few people look on from a second-level balcony to our right. This includes a trio of men all wearing black. In the next bay, a man with medium-brown skin wears Pawnee attire with a tall headdress, necklaces, and what seems to be a fur-lined cloak. He looks out at us. A clock on the wall near him reads 6:14. The domed space has nested, ivory-white square or octagonal panels within gold borders. At the center of each panel is a six-petaled, gold flower. The artist signed the work as if he had written his name and date on the base of the wall to our left: “S.F.B. MORSE pinx 1822.”

Samuel F. B. Morse, The House of Representatives, 1822, probably reworked 1823, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.27

1819: The US Capitol is reconstructed 

Samuel F. B. Morse was a painter before he became famous for inventing the telegraph (and Morse code). The young artist decided that, to be taken seriously, he needed to make a major history painting. His subject: the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. 

Morse worked long days for many months to paint the nearly 11-foot-wide canvas. Much of his painting is imagined. At the time, representatives were heatedly debating legislation like the Slave Trade Act and Missouri Compromise. But Morse shows congressmen, staff, Supreme Court justices, and press reading, resting, or in quiet conversation as the chamber is prepared for an evening session. 

Pawnee Chief Petalesharo looks on from the visitors’ gallery at the top right. He was part of a delegation from the Great Plains tribes that met with President James Monroe. Speeches delivered at that meeting include the remark, “We have everything we want—we have plenty of land, if you will keep your people off of it.”

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, Currier and Ives, Currier and Ives,

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, Currier and Ives, Currier and Ives, "Wooding Up" on the Mississippi, 1863, color lithograph with hand-coloring on wove paper, Donald and Nancy deLaski Fund, 2011.30.1

1807: Debut of the Clermont steamship

One invention played a key role in early America’s growth and expansion—the steamboat. And central to its popularity? A painter. Pennsylvania-born portraitist turned inventor Robert Fulton made his name building the first successful submarine, but then shifted his focus to making boats that used English steam engines. 

In 1807 he debuted the Clermont, which traveled from New York City to Albany, New York. Steamboats were faster and larger than the flatboats that came before them. They allowed goods to be transported around the country and led to further exploration and settlement. 

Frances Flora “Fanny” Palmer was a British immigrant known for illustrations of life in the United States. This 1863 print shows the luxurious Princess steamboat stopping for fuel. Black figures, likely enslaved, load lumber onto the boat—a reminder that the exploitation of both people and land drove the Industrial Revolution. White passengers, who enjoyed the boat’s lavish meals and lodgings, stand on the upper deck. 

In 1858 the Princess was heading to New Orleans when its four boilers exploded. Dozens of passengers died, and others were seriously injured. It was one of many steamboats to explode or break down.

A turreted, sprawling stone castle, bronzed by the setting sun, crowns a rocky cliff at the center of this horizontal landscape painting. A round turret rises in the center of the castle’s jumble of blocky, square buildings. The buildings are dramatically outlined against a mass of roiling charcoal-gray and indigo-blue clouds, which are edged in peach, in the upper right corner. Barely noticeable amid the hulking structure, a scarlet-red flag flutters from a window in the tower overlooking a distant crag to our right. On that distant mountain, a column of amber smoke rises to mingle with the clouds above a bright band of sunlight on the horizon. Low trees and bushes grow around the base of the battlements. The land dips steeply toward us to a river below the cliff. Through the tangle of trees, a dirt road winds down the hill to a bridge of pale stone that crosses the river in front of us, to our left of center. Groups of helmeted horsemen cross the bridge, passing under a stone archway at its center. Near the bridge, tiny in scale, a herd of goats capers on the road near the horsemen as they ride on in a double column coming toward us along the clay-brown road. One rider carries a red pennant fluttering in the breeze. The riders wear ruby-red tunics and carry upright lances and shields. Light glints off their armor and helmets as they head to our right, toward the dark mass of tangled trees and rocky cliff on the border of the picture. A copse of low, gnarled trees grows near the opposite edge of the painting, to our left. Behind these trees and riders stretches a river valley spanned by another stone bridge. A cluster of people can barely be seen near and along that massive bridge in the distance. Beyond, buildings and a tall, square tower are lit by fires belching clouds of smoke. A heavy bank of gray clouds obscures the rest of the valley. Birds soar in the mist near a distant cliff, where flames and more smoke rise behind a boulder. In the deep distance to our left, a high, craggy cliff topped by a sprinkling of snow surges above the blanket of fog and clouds. In front of a clear, blue sky, it is also bathed in coral-red by the setting sun.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, The Spirit of War, 1851, oil on canvas, Avalon Fund, 1978.12.1

1850: The Compromise of 1850 establishes California as a free state

Knights on horseback ride off to battle in Jasper Francis Cropsey’s The Spirit of War. Despite its medieval setting, Cropsey’s painting references the military and political battles that were top of mind for Americans in the mid-19th century.

The Mexican American War ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe. The United States expanded significantly, taking over all or some of what is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, and Texas. This land brought with it some 115,000 new American citizens. But what kind of country would those new citizens live in? 

The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state (one where slavery was banned) and also allowed Utah and New Mexico to decide whether to be free states. It also created a new Fugitive Slave Act that required free states to return escaped enslaved people to their owners and made it illegal to assist runaways.

Cropsey first exhibited The Spirit of War a year later with another painting, The Spirit of Peace. The pair captured the tension between the two sides of the country—and the potential for war.

Charles Frederic Ulrich, In the Land of Promise, Castle Garden, 18841884

Charles Frederic Ulrich, In the Land of Promise, Castle Garden, 1884, oil on wood, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.136.1

1855: Castle Garden opens as America’s first immigration processing station

In 1855, nearly four decades before Ellis Island, the country’s first immigrant processing station opened at Castle Garden. Over 8 million immigrants passed through the station in its 35 years. American artist Charles Frederic Ulrichpainted this scene of a busy waiting room in 1884. At the center, a mother nursing her baby sits on a trunk with labels that suggest they may be from Sweden. 

When this work was exhibited, critics noted the irony of its title—In the Land of Promise. Migrants faced poor living conditions, and the federal government had begun limiting who could immigrate to the United States. Following the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 set annual quotas for immigrants from each country. Today, quotas still exist for certain immigrant groups.

A man and a woman with black skin stand in a sage and olive-green boat that comes toward us on a wavy, dripping band of cobalt blue that spans the lower edge of this loosely hanging, square canvas. The word “WANDERER” is written in white capital letters along the bow of the boat. Closer to us, in the boat, a woman is seen from the hips up. An oval, cloud-like form covers her torso, shoulders, and the area behind her head. It is white with rose-pink swirls, and has a few black lines creating scallops around the edge. A black shape at her waist, just over a cobalt-blue skirt, could indicate that at least one arm is bent behind her back. The penis, thighs, and knees of a man are seen between the boat and the triangular, pale lilac-purple sail. The sail is painted with long, curling strokes of violet purple up its center. A long, white pennant with two gold stars flutters from the boat’s burgundy-red mast, which has a crosspiece just below the pennant. The water is painted with strokes of royal blue, which partially drip over a white skull at the lower center. The boat is set against a background layered in washes of white, shell pink, and baby blue, with swirls and thin strokes of brick red scattered across it. A yellow sun outlined in deeper gold peeks above the horizon in the lower left, and is repeated with more orbs that together make an arc that curves to the upper right corner. A few geometric line drawings hover next to the woman, on our left, such as a compass-like cross with a crosshatched oval at each end. A black number

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art), 2014.79.52

1858: The Wanderer slave ship arrives to Georgia

Kerry James Marshall’s painting Voyager memorializes some of the last enslaved people brought to America. The name on the boat refers to the Wanderer, one of the last slave ships to come to the United States. 

The Wanderer docked at Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858, 50 years after the nation had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade. We don’t know exactly how many people had been forced onto the boat before it left from West Africa, but many died on the six-week journey across the Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage. The 409 people who survived were sold into slavery at markets in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

Marshall surrounds the figures on the boat with symbols. For example, images of fetuses and a skull reference the tragic deaths of the ship’s captives. 

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire, X.15233

1863: 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment storms Fort Wagner

Just weeks after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the governor of Massachusetts began recruiting Black soldiers. More than 600 men volunteered to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, including two sons of orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. However, Black soldiers were not allowed to be officers. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of an abolitionist family, was chosen to lead the regiment. 

On July 18, 1863, the regiment led an assault on Confederate forces at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Nearly half of the Union soldiers, including Shaw, were captured or killed. Their bravery was widely reported and is said to have convinced General Ulysses S. Grant to recruit more Black soldiers. And they inspired many Black men to enlist—more than 180,000 served the United States Forces during the Civil War, fighting for the permanent end to slavery and to restore the Union. 

In the 1880s, Shaw’s family commissioned Irish American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to make a monument honoring the 54th. His initial versions focused solely on Shaw. The family asked Saint-Gaudens to include the valiant soldiers that Shaw had served alongside. (While many were still living, Saint-Gaudens did not use any of them as models.) The bronze memorial was unveiled on Boston Common in May 1897. But Saint-Gaudens wasn’t completely satisfied—he kept working on this slightly different plaster version for several more years.

Carleton E. Watkins, Piwyac, Vernal Fall, 300 feet, Yosemite, 18611861

Carleton E. Watkins, Piwyac, Vernal Fall, 300 feet, Yosemite, 1861, albumen print, Gift of Mary and David Robinson, 1995.35.23

1864: Yosemite Valley established as first federally protected park

Carleton Watkins was one of many adventurers to move out West for the Gold Rush. While living in San Francisco, Watkins learned the art of photography and established a business making photographs for land dispute cases and mining interests. 

In summer 1861 Watkins carried his (large) camera to California’s remote Yosemite Valley. His photos of sublime landscapes and magnificent trees were a wonder to viewers around the country. 

Watkins’s photographs also proved useful in lobbying efforts to protect the land from development or deforestation. In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, providing the land with federal protection. This would eventually lead to the creation of the National Park System. 

While national parks would prove essential to preserving and protecting places like Yosemite Valley, they led to the Native Ahwahnechee people (also known as the Southern Sierra Band of Miwok Indians) being pushed out from the region they’d inhabited for thousands of years.

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July 14, 2023