It’s the 4th of July, so we’re looking back at 236 years of American history in iconic images and artworks.
Washington Crossing the Delaware
In the months after the United States declared independence, it looked like there was little chance of maintaining the fledgling nation’s freedom. But Americans love a comeback. The day after Christmas in 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River at night to attack a Hessian garrison. Successfully surprising the mercenaries, Washington’s victory was immortalized by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 (the year that saw Portland, Maine win a coin toss over Boston, Massachusets for the naming rights to a city in Oregon Territory). The German-American painter created one of the most famous depictions of the first POTUS, but the original work was ironically destroyed in Bremen by an Allied air raid in 1942.
The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter
Alexander Gardner, born in Scotland, bore witness to the nation’s greatest privations in his photography, including this 1863 photo of Gettysburg. The Civil War finally ended slavery in America and saw an estimated 750,000 Americans die. The war’s scale and misery hinted at the twentieth century’s coming brutality. “It is designed to speak for itself,” Gardner later said of his work, “as mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.”
John Gast’s 1872 depiction of Manifest Destiny in American Progress became iconic. Little is known about this Prussian-American painter and lithographer, though every schoolboy will recognize his work from their history textbooks. Over the course of the nineteenth century easterners would seize and settle the West, creating a complex moral legacy. American railroads were extended to the Pacific and the great cities of the West Coast began to coalesce.
“So This is America”
Lewis Wickes Hine was one of the most famous photographers of the early twentieth century, using the medium to popularize the fight against unsafe working conditions and child labor. His 1926 depiction of a Jewish grandmother arriving at Ellis Island captured the changes coming to the nation, both in terms of new people and new ideas. It was a great year for American culture: Warner Brothers and Fox Films both began advanced experimentation with “talkies.” Ernest Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, a year after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald had published The Great Gatsby.
It’s disputed whether the ‘20s flapped or roared, but the ‘30s certainly depressed. Below is a picture of a thirty-two-year-old Californian mother of seven children, who had just sold her car’s tires for food. Unemployment reached 25%, and confidence in the economy’s strength was in short supply. The year had a few bright spots: Jesse Owens won the 100-meter dash at the Berlin Olympics and the Hoover Dam was completed.
V-J Day in Times Square
Concluding with the second deployment of the atomic bomb, World War Two was far more global and fearsome than its predecessor. The war, unlike any seen before or since, saw horrific massacres of civillians and soldiers alike and introduced unthinkably destructive weapons. Europe and Japan were left in shambles and America emerged on the world scene as the one half of a bipolar world.
Alfred Eisenstadt’s PDA snapshot of a nurse and sailor captured the long-awaited jubilation of peace. Many have claimed to be the subjects of the photo, but the pair’s identity remains elusive, perhaps because of the amount of impromptu kissing going on that day. Subsequent generations have wondered what his left hand is doing.
The Death of RFK
Shot while leaving a campaign event in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy lay dying beside seventeen-year-old busboy Julian Romero. Slain by Sirhan Sirhan for his support of Israel, RFK’s death symbolized the end of the Kennedy era of the Democratic Party. The late ’60s were a time of incredible strife, with race riots across the nation and rising opposition to the Vietnam War. The year of RFK’s death, 1968, would be the most tumultuous of the decade.
His last words were, “Is everyone safe?”
If RFK’s death represents the political half of the ’60s, the culture is summed up by this poster advertising Woodstock. After the straight-laced ‘50s, American culture changed abruptly. Civil rights, JFK, RFK, and MLK, Hippies, drugs, and Vietnam all started making the papers. The symbol of this change is undeniably Woodstock. A 1969 music festival that drew 400,000 people, Woodstock assembled an entire counterculture and its musical heroes in one muddy field in upstate New York. The attendees represented a new generation with new values, albeit also with fewer clothes and a diminished inclination to shower.
This poster has had enduring value, gracing many dorm rooms and available everywhere posters are sold. Andrew Skolnick received $15 for the work.
President David Shapiro
And a bonus image from ’68: students seize the office of President Grayson Kirk of Columbia University. David Shapiro lights a cigar to celebrate.
The country was again divided in the ‘80s with controversies over the AIDS crisis, Gay rights, second/third-wave feminism, and the line between art and obscenity. Barbara Kruger creates a flag from provocative text, asking the viewer to investigate the nature of the American nation. The conservatism of the Reagan years sparked the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, including the obscenity trial over BDSM imagery in Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio (NSFW).
A Young Man Bridges the Wall Between East and West Berlin
Four thousand miles from the nation’s shores, an event changed American thought immensely. The Berlin Wall, which would itself become a canvas for the frustrations of a generation of young Germans, tumbled down. Its 1989 fall ushered in the end of the Cold War, the lifting of the Iron Curtain, and an entirely new geopolitical scene for America. No longer in a bipolar world, American ideas and attitudes changed quickly. A conflict that had defined the world and its peoples’ allegiances suddenly ceased to exist.