It’s funny how history can converge on one moment. Take, for example, a 1919 painting by N.C. Wyeth (the father of Andrew Wyeth), titled Beginning of the American Union: Washington salutes the flag as he takes command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, 1775. The painting was commissioned by the textbook publisher Ginn and Company as the frontispiece for William J. Long’s America: A History of Our Country (1923). When thousands of schoolchildren cracked open the book, it was the first image they saw, and one of only four colored plates in the whole text. If the painting’s very title did not make it explicit, its place of prominence in the textbook would have implied that this moment, as opposed to any other moment in the Revolutionary era, was when the Union began.1
In the painting, Washington sits atop his horse, sword drawn, dappled by the shade of a giant elm in the background, ceremonially holding his saber out from his chest. Young, almost nervous-looking aides sidle up behind him, each with his own stern, Washingtonian nose. It’s a familiar image of Washington, though rendered with a focus and intensity that are uniquely N.C. Wyeth. But while Wyeth’s talent might make the painting stand out, I think it’s really the general’s gaze that sets this painting apart from other depictions of Washington assuming command. Instead of looking down at the men before him, or looking over them in survey,2 Washington gazes up and to the right, almost plaintively, like a saint—as if he is taking his orders from providence itself. According to the painting’s title, Washington is anachronistically saluting “the flag”; perhaps he salutes the idea of the flag, or some holy vision of it.
But what does it mean for this to be a providential moment? And what does it mean for the “Union” to have begun at the moment Washington took command?
When the Brandywine River Museum of Art hosted an N.C. Wyeth exhibit in 2019, the critic Philip Kennicott found that Wyeth’s works “present a mostly uncritical view of the world as Wyeth saw it, a world of upstanding men and women who were industrious, courageous and independent, and who shared a common canon of stories, myths and imagery dating to America’s Colonial past and European roots.” In other words, Kennicott argued, they are images that explore and promote American whiteness as providential, a nation formed by and exclusively for the progeny of a white-European settler-colonial project. But it’s never quite so explicit, Kennicott explained. “Whiteness,” he wrote, “in this sense, is defined by absence.”3
How can we, as historians, find what is present in that absence? One way may be to track the antecedents of images back to their source.