Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

RSS feed of this blog

Don’t miss “1812: A Nation Emerges”–now in Washington, D.C.

The entrance hall to “1812: A Nation Emerges,” dominated by a 17-star flag flown by an American blockade runner and a painting of Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. (NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY)

I’m a day late and a dollar short, I admit, in writing about the fabulous War of 1812 exhibition now on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

And I’ve run out time in the wee hours this morning to pen something worthwhile, though I promise I’ll have much to add to what appears in my print piece about the show in The Free Lance-Star today.

The exhibit’s curators, Sidney  Hart and Rachael L. Penman, offered plenty of food for thought during their lively  press preview.

But for now, I’ll have to make do with a short excerpt from Ms. Penman’s own blog post from while the exhibit was still in production. It gives you some sense of the many surprises that the completed show holds for fortunate visitors:

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. … 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.