by Rachael Penman, Assistant Curator of "1812: A Nation Emerges." The exhibition opens June 15, 2012
Bicentennial commemorations for the War of 1812 will officially begin on June 18, 2012, in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. Here at the National Portrait Gallery, the upcoming exhibition “1812: A Nation Emerges” will present the big picture of the “little war” that lasted nearly three years and stretched across North America.
The most exciting part of developing an exhibition on this scale is selecting pieces that will create the “wow” factor, both through visual impact and the stories they tell. The show contains roughly 100 pieces, ranging from an eight-foot-wide painting of Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie (1812 was critical to the development of the U.S. Navy, which will be holding various commemorations throughout the year), to a life-size sculpture of the Native American leader Tecumseh, who sided with the British, and Gilbert Stuart’s famed portrait of Dolley Madison. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Winfield Scott will be seen not as the old men we’re more familiar with from later photographs, but as they were in their prime—young, energetic, and ambitious. The War of 1812 launched their careers.
Some of the hardest works to track down were those of the British officers who came to America to fight for king and country. The portraits of major generals Edward Pakenham and Robert Ross, who both died in battle, still belong to their descendants and have never been on public display anywhere, let alone in America.
Three years after he reveled in the burning of Washington, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn had his portrait painted with the city alight in the background. In June we’ll be putting up this very portrait in the heart of the city he attempted to destroy. Somewhere in England, Cockburn is rolling in his grave.
“1812” will also shed light on those men who were celebrated in their time but have been largely lost to history. General Zebulon Pike died in the successful attack on the Canadian capital of York (modern-day Toronto) and was forgotten, yet today visitors from all over the world climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado.
A Mohawk chief named Teyoninhokarawen (more commonly referred to as John Norton) fought in nearly every battle on the Canadian frontier but has been completely overshadowed by Tecumseh. William Thornton, superintendent of patents, stood up to a regiment of British soldiers about to set fire to the Patent Office Building (precursor to the building that now houses the National Portrait Gallery), saving the contents from destruction.
In the War of 1812 it is sometimes hard to separate the legends from the actual events. We don’t know if Dolley Madison was still at the White House when George Washington’s portrait was taken off the wall, although it was likely saved on her initiative. But we do know she took the red velvet curtains from the Oval Drawing Room and saved a red velvet dress until the end of her life. The dress is thought to have been made from the curtains and will be displayed in the exhibition.
Jean Lafitte is well known as the patriotic pirate who came to Andrew Jackson’s rescue at the Battle of New Orleans. What most people don’t realize is that we have no idea what he looked like, where he was born, how he died, and that he did not actually fight in the battle on January 8, 1815. The striking portrait thought to be Lafitte that we will display was found buried in a box at Lafitte’s last known base in Galveston, Texas.
From the American invasion of Canada, to the victories of the USS Constitution, the defense of Fort McHenry, and the Battle of Tippecanoe, “1812: A Nation Emerges” will tell the story of the war through the lives of extraordinary individuals, with portraits by some of the best artists America has ever produced. The United States emerged from the War of 1812 perhaps not the victor in battle, but successful in once and for all declaring itself a nation.
“1812: A Nation Emerges” will open on June 15, 2012, and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.