Sunday, July 4, 2010

Artists Remark the Fourth of July

Above: Childe Hassam (1859-1935) The Fourth of July, 1916 (Subtitle: The Greatest Display of American Flags in New York and the Climax of a Preparedness Parade in May), 1916.

It would appear that there was popular support among Americans to enter the war against Germany and Austria.
Hassam is thought of as an American Impressionist painter of landscapes.

The fourth day of July has been set aside as our time for celebration of the 1776 signing of our Declaration of Independence It is usually marked by political speeches ( in the1800's the text of the document was often read in public - in full) parades, family get-togethers, and food.

In my day, it it was deviled eggs, hot dogs, potato salad, iced tea, white cake and watermelon. Swimming at a lake. No fast foods. Today one could slip in BBQ, cold noodles or cheesecake and still be patriotic.

If you are interested in the holiday's menus, Diane C. Atkins has recently documented celebrations and the food served in her book, Glorious Fourth of July: The Celebration Treats and Treasures from America's Past (Penguin Publishing, 2009)

In addition, the Website Four Pounds Flour: Historic Gastronomy is a marvelous source of information on historic foods. They tell us that John and Abagail Adams might have celebrated the holiday in 1777 with green turtle soup, poached salmon and appplepan dowdy

From the popular media, however, we may surmise that the day was largely about flags and fireworks!Above: Antique post card

In their casual manner, Americans have sat on benches and watched parades of veterans and boy scouts, sprawled on blankets for picnics and band concerts or frolicked in public parks with neighbors, friends and schoolmates.

And artists have found those activities worth remarking.

Richard [Clifford] Diebenkorn, Jr. (b. Portland,OR, 1922- 1993, Berkeley,CA) July, 1957

Maurice Pendergast (b. Newfoundland, 1858-1924) Central Park, NYC, July 4th , 1900-1903
Post Impressionist in oil and here, water color.

Archibald Motley
(b.New Orleans, LA, 1891-1981) The Barbecue, 1937. He was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


One of the poems I memorized years ago in English class. I have taught the opening lines to my children: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Landlord's Tale. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (b. Portland, Maine, 1807-1882)

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year

Fourth of July Poems are listed on One excerpt is Carl Sandburg (from Smoke and Steel, 1920):

Many ways to say good night

Fireworks at a pier on the Fourth of July Spell it with red wheels and yellow spokes...

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlingetti wrote a collection called Coney Island of the Mind and one of his pieces is "I Am Waiting," 1958):

I am waiting for my case to come up
And I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America.,,,

Gregory Djanikian
"Immigrant Picnic"
(from Poetry, July, 1999) Djanikian was born 1949 in Alexandria, Egypt.

It's the Fourth of July
the Flags are painting the town
the plastic knives and forks are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron
I've got potato salad, macaroni and relish ...

It concludes:

an And I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai

b Burgeoning without end,

P Pecans in the South, the jumbled

fF Flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,

w Wordless, confusing,

C Crowding out everything else.


John Stango (b. 1958, Philadelphia, PA) July Flag. n.d.
Stango is an urban-based Pop artist and designer. He is known for his one-of-a-kind T-shirts and the use of his paintings as back-drops for department store displays.

And then there are other, similar interpretations of the day and its meanings. Skeptical and apprehensive, these by Swiss photographer Robert Frank have caught the eye of art critics, social commentators, and perhaps most strongly in the art history classroom.

Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, NJ, 1955
Some Americans are unable or unwilling to leave their apartments, so they watch the parade anonymously.

Robert Frank (b. Zurich, 1924) Coney Island Fourth of July,1958
This man remains or is left behind with the scraps and detritus of a July Fourth at the beach.
Robert Frank, Michigan July 4th

Frank's work lies in contrast to two other important but very different bodies of images. One is the Family of Man publication (1955, The Museum of Modern Art), edited by Edward Steichen and acting as a promotional message for the culture and values of the USA. The photos were homogenized into a single style, a single tone and projected a feeling that We are "One World" under the skin. It is ironic that several of Frank's photos appear in the book.

Walker Evans (1903-75), on the other hand, had produced in 1940 a graphic, realistic accounting of farming life in the American South, particularly share croppers in Georgia. His work raised questions about the quality of our American culture. One can see it in the book that he-co-authored with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Robert Frank is similarly inquisitive.

The Film:

An equally serious and cinematic statement about this national holiday is the 1989 film, "Born on the 4th of July" (starring Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic). The film is based on Kovic's autobiography of the same title, published in 1986

Kiddie Lit:

Apple Pie Fourth of July by Janet s Wong, 2002, is a brief story about a Chinese-American girl who, on Fourth of July, questions the value of her Chinese heritage. She learns that it was the Chinese who invented fireworks and apple pie and achieves a measure of self-acceptance. I just purchased a copy for my grandchildren.

Other Takes by Famous Artists:

Ben Shahn ( b. Lithuania, 1898-1969) July 4th Celebration, Wrestling Match,, Ashville, Ohio,1943

Henri Cartier-Bresson (b. France, 1908-2004), Cape Cod, 1947

Margaret Bourke-White (1904, Bronx, NY - 1971) July 4, 1953, New York City, 1953`
A LIFE magazine cover for July 4. Majesty but no flags.

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