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Image-making and the circulation of images: Peale, Trumbull and the founding fathers

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Images of the founding fathers shaped the way Americans saw their nation and its leading figures. Justly celebrated portraits by Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull and others, claimed the authority of factual accuracy. Such images were part of the late eighteenth-century world of image-making which spread across Europe and the United States. The financial interests of the painters and engravers, and the changeable market for their images, meant that images were frequently copied from other images, from statue to portrait painting to mezzotint engraving. The experience of the painters (Peale was a radical patriot, Trumbull was a conservative Federalist) influenced the market for their work, but both men regarded their heroic portraits as ‘a means of exciting an Emulation in our Posterity’. John Adams in his Discourses of Davila in 1790 articulated the central role for admiration or emulation in the strengthening of the patriotic impulse. Later social theorists, such as Thorstein Veblen and Charles Horton Cooley, argued that emulation was more important in consumption and the appetite for wealth, than in the transmission of high ideals. The failure of many proposals to create memorials to the founding fathers in New York City, from 1825 to 1850, suggests that the model of emulation endorsed by Adams needs to be reconsidered. New Yorkers were not indifferent to patriotic heroes, as Walt Whitman feared; but the conservative and hierarchical dimensions of emulation aroused scepticism. The origin of so many proposals for civic monuments came from the city's elite. But the public was growing reluctant to accept their leadership in public life.
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Keywords: Peale; Trumbull; Washington; Whitman; emulation; patriotism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of East Anglia.

Publication date: 01 February 2005

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  • The European Journal of American Culture (EJAC) is an academic, refereed journal for scholars, academics and students from many disciplines with a common involvement in the interdisciplinary study of America and American culture, drawing on a variety of approaches and encompassing the whole evolution of the country.
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