Using Works of Art in Teaching American History

by Daniel Walker Howe

The best teachers of Western Civilization courses have long made use of the European fine arts—painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts—to bring the subject alive to their students. It is perhaps less well recognized that there are many wonderful works of art that can illustrate American history as well. The most rewarding paintings and prints not only make historical events visible but provide students with plenty to talk about. What does the picture tell us about people’s lives, customs, family relationships, and technology? What is the artist’s perspective on the people or actions in the picture? Which of the people in the picture does the artist sympathize with? What do you think the people shown in the painting are saying? Why are certain people in the center of the painting and others on the margin?

Paintings that depict scenes of everyday life are called “genre” paintings or narrative paintings. They provide us with contemporary images even for historical times before the invention of photography, with the added interest that the painter created the scene to depict people and objects exactly as he or she chose, so we can ask why these choices were made. Genre paintings are certainly not the only kind of paintings useful in studying history, but they have a particular interest for students and teachers, and in this essay I want to show how they can enhance our presentation of the American past. The paintings listed below were all part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit American Stories

Portrait of Paul Revere, by John Singleton Copley, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We remember Paul Revere as the horseman who rode out to warn the people of Massachusetts in April 1775 that the redcoats were coming. In his own time he was best known as a talented silversmith. His friend Copley has painted him here with a superb silver teapot, custom made for one of Revere’s clients. The teapot itself displayed Revere’s magnificent craftsmanship, and the painting of the teapot gives Copley a chance to display his own craftsmanship: he makes the teapot shine in paint as it would have done in real life. Paul Revere is an example of the artisans who played such a large role in the American Revolutio—hardworking, skillful, self-employed, and proud, ready to defend their rights. 

The Exhumation of the Mastodon, by Charles Willson Peale, Maryland Historical Society

Some of America’s best early painters were also scientists. Besides Charles Willson Peale, another example is John James Audubon. They painted subjects of scientific interest. Peale here shows himself and his family in charge of the exhumation of a prehistoric mastodon. The artist-scientist shows off a painting within a painting: his rendering of a long mastodon bone. The image also demonstrates for us an example of technology at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Pat Lyon at the Forge, by John Neagle (1829)Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Patrick Lyon had become a wealthy man when he commissioned this portrait of himself as a young blacksmith. The painting celebrates two characteristically American values: the nobility of industry and upward social mobility. The boy in the background is an apprentice. He worked for no wages so that he could learn the trade.

Eel Spearing at Setauket, by William Sidney Mount, Fenimore Art Museum, Boston

William Sidney Mount was remarkable among the white Americans of his day for his sympathetic portrayals of African Americans. Here he shows a strong, capable black woman teaching a young white boy how to spear eels. Ironically, she is legally the slave and he the free person. The painting tells a true story, as the commentary on the Internet explains.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, by George Caleb Bingham (1846), Manoogian Collection
Transportation along waterways was vitally important for Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. For thousands of years, it had been faster and more efficient to travel on water than by land. Canals, starting with the Erie Canal completed in 1825, created “artificial rivers” to facilitate transportation. The invention of the steamboat enabled goods to be shipped upstream, even against strong currents like that on the Mississippi, and magnified the importance of waterways as arteries of transportation. In this painting the artist celebrates the men who worked along the rivers and canals transporting merchandise.

War News from Mexico, by Richard Caton Woodville (1848), The Crystal Bridges Collection (Item 2)
Along with the improvements in transportation there were revolutionary improvements in communications. The steam-operated press churned out newspapers faster than ever before; improvements in paper-making enabled them to have more pages; the steamboats and railroads facilitated their distribution. The invention of the electric telegraph in 1844 enabled news to appear in the papers much faster. In 1848, US newspapers agreed to pool the news about the war with Mexico coming in along the wires and created the Associated Press, still with us. This painting shows a scene on the front porch of a Post Office, where people received their newspapers. Reading out loud was much more common before the advent of radio and television. The people on the porch are all white men; the African Americans and the woman leaning out of the window all try to hear too, but they are relegated to the margins. Historians sometimes speak of social groups who are “marginalized”; in this painting they are literally on the margin.

The County Election, by George Caleb Bingham, The St. Louis Art Museum
The first observation to be made here is that every one of the many people in this picture is male. Politics in 1852 was a male monopoly. The artist works conscientiously to show both the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy as he encountered it in Missouri in the 1850s. Some men are discussing politics earnestly; others just get drunk. The candidate, wearing a top hat, tips it to a simple farmer in shirt sleeves, showing how political and social democracy go hand in hand. In the distance, a man on a galloping horse is urging voters to come to the voting place. There would be only one polling place in the county, and the polls would stay open for two or three days to accommodate men coming in from distant farms. Voting is not secret. Near the center of picture, one man marks his ballot before casting it while two others look over his shoulder. Ballots were printed by the political parties, not by the government. Each party printed its ballot on a different color of paper, to make it easy to tell which party a man voted for. The uniform ballot listing all candidates, printed by the government, was a reform introduced in the “Progressive Era” of the early twentieth century. It was called “the Australian ballot” because it was used in Australia.

Of course, the “American Stories” exhibition is not the only place on the Internet where you can find pictures to illustrate American history. Nor are paintings the only kind of pictures teachers can use to advantage. For example, here is a wonderful drawing, “California Gold Diggers,” by an unknown artist. It depicts the earliest phase of the California Gold Rush, made in 1848, before many of the prospectors arrived from the eastern seabord states and Europe in 1849. It comes from the Western Americana Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.

This unknown artist shows that people from many countries and all walks of life have already arrived and started looking for gold. American Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese are among them, reminding us that news of the gold discovery traveled first around the Pacific Rim, before it reached the more distant areas around the Atlantic. Some recent settlers in Oregon and Australia packed up again to rush to California. The only accommodations yet erected are a few tents, one of which is a Native American tipi. The early prospectors paid practically no attention to amenities in their haste to find gold before others did. Some of them in the background are already fighting each other. Most of these first arrivals had no intention of actually settling in California; they hoped to get rich quick and go back home.

The dramatic innovations in communications and transportation mentioned already enabled the discovery of gold in California to spread more quickly, and to more people, than any previous phenomenon. A narrative painting by William Sidney Mount entitled “California News” illustrates how many Americans in the eastern part of the country received and responded to the news. You can find it on the Internet along with other drawings and paintings by the same artist in an exhibition called “The Riches of Sight” at the Long Island Museum of American History, Art, and Carriages put on in 2002.

Like the painting by Richard Caton Woodville about news from the Mexican War, this one by William Sidney Mount centers on a person reading aloud from a newspaper. He reads about the California Gold Rush, which is already well underway. (The painting dates from 1850.) The bearded man at the table with him is selling tickets on a ship to San Francisco. (Since the Panama Canal has not yet been dug, the ship will sail all the way around Cape Horn.) The poster on the wall advertises the ship as the Loo Choo, a name that tells us that the ship had been built for the China trade but has now been diverted to carrying passengers to California, like much of the American merchant marine. A variety of people are all interested in the prospect of California, including an old man and a child. A young woman seems particularly excited by what she hears. A black man wants to listen too, but (just as in Woodville’s painting) he must back off and listen from the margin.

I hope these examples will pique your curiosity and that of your students, to see how images from the artists of the past can enrich and illuminate American history. This is one of the countless ways that we can benefit from the riches available on the Internet. You can see more examples of narrative painting in a wonderful book by Elisabeth Johns, American Genre Painting.


Daniel Walker Howe taught at UCLA for nineteen years. He is the author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. His wife Sandra is a Los Angeles high school teacher, and checks all he writes.

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