FOUR BLOCKS NORTH of the main tourist attractions on the Washington Mall lies a cultural gem no Scorpion reader visiting the anti-nation's capital should miss. The National Museum of American Art along with the National Portrait Gallery, is housed in the Old Patent Building. The main entrance is located on F Street between 7th and 9th Streets. The building itself is of historical and architectural interest, being a Greek Revival building, "temple of the useful arts", begun in 1836. The principle enticement for a visit, however, will be found on the second floor of the N.M.A.A. Here are exhibited numerous works of nineteenth and early twentieth century art which explicitly celebrates Northern European aesthetics.
The second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of this century can now be viewed as the latest (hopefully not the last) efflorescence of Northern civilization. Nordic societies were at a high water mark of power, wealth and knowledge vis-a -vis the rest of mankind. They were in the midst of a technical-industrial revolution at home which provided the impetus to complete the settlement of two continents (North America and Australia) and the exploration of another (Antarctica). Expansiveness of spirit was in part a cause and in part a result of the physical and material advancement of the race. Nordics of this era generally felt a consciousness of kind, a pride in the present and a faith in the future. The psychological environment animated most Northern artists of the day to extol traditional Western aesthetics in their creations.
There is a high degree of continuity in the Western ideal of human beauty from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to the early part of the twentieth century. A beauty which encompasses both countenance and character is central to this ideal. Another requisite is the unity of strength and refinement. In Northern European iconography, the knight, the gentle warrior, represents the masculine ideal, while angels are often used to represent the vigorous and delicate beauty of Nordic women and children.
One artist who is famous for his allegoric use of angels is Abbott Handerson Thayer. In fact, "if a single motif pervades the art and life of Abbott Thayer it is that of wings... angels are symbols of God's transcendent presence and blessing." (Ross Anderson Abbott Handerson Thayer Syracuse, NY Everson Museum, 1982 p.11). The National Museum of American Art has several major works by Thayer, including Angel (1888), Virgin Enthroned (1891) and Stevenson Memorial (1903). The artist portrays his females with a combination of idealism and realism that permits them to embody the contrasting qualities of virginity and motherhood, chastity and fecundity, purity and sensuality. In addition to Nordic women and children, New England wildlife and landscapes were subjects of Thayer's art.
Angel was the first work by the artist in the genre for which he is best known. Thayer used his daughter Mary as the model. In truth, the painting is more successful in portraying a sweet, attractive, yet unaffective girl than an angel. The problem is that the wings lack an organic unity with the rest of the composition. They are almost a distraction. The painting would be complete without them. Virgin Enthroned is a tripartite composition in the classical style. Here, all three of Thayer's children served as models. Stevenson Memorial was painted to commemorate Robert Louis Stevenson. Thayer used Bessie Price, one of his Irish domestics, as his model. Despite her socio-economic status, there was nothing coarse in Bessie's appearance. Instead, she "had an expression of angelic purity and great dignity, a sentiment of spiritual nobility that seemed divinely ordained for Thayer's sympathetic interpretation." (Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and Naturalist, Hartford, Connecticut Printers Inc., 1951, p.76). Photographs of Miss Price show that the artist needed little idealization of his model to achieve his desired effect. It is gratifying to report that several years after Stevenson Memorial was painted, Bess married a local New Hampshireman and settled down to raise a large family.
Among the many other works that should not be missed while at the N.M.A.A. is a large canvas by Frederick Judd Waugh entitled The Knight of the Holy Grail (1912). The artist, best known for his seascapes, here shows Sir Galahad being guarded by angels to the secret chalice. "A Nordic fantasy" the museum plaque informs us, which is true enough, for the composition includes both a knight and angels, two of the most abiding figures in Western iconography depicting one of our most enduring legends. The quest for the hallowed cup has come to represent almost every virtue of Western man: courage, self mastery, moral excellence and ontological knowledge. Together, these qualities lead to a state of grace or harmony with creation and the creator.
Daniel Chester French, the sculptor best known perhaps for Minute Man (1875) and Alma Mater (1903), has a smaller piece here entitled The Spirit of Life (1914). The artist symbolizes the spirit of life as a winged Nordic female. This statue served as a working model for a larger sculpture contained within the Spencer Trask Memorial at Saratoga Spings, New York. Unfortunately, the spirit of death was also abroad in the year of 1914. Probably the most enduringly grievous casualties of the First Great Fratricidal War were psychological. The West suffered a loss of idealism and collective self-confidence, expressed most acutely in the visual arts. The West has never completely regained its nerve nor recovered its optimism and sense of mission buried in the carnage of World War I.
All art is a form of propaganda. Art, along with politics and religion, disseminates an ideology, whether the artist is conscious of it or not. Art which idealises Nordic beauty and moral values strengthens our community. Nihilistic art weakens it. Today few writers pay explicit tribute to the Northern aesthetic, but thousands of pornographers and admen pay an implicit and backhanded tribute to Northern beauty by exploiting the ideal for fun and profit.
" ...cultural conditions are not conducive to the creation of great Northerners. If any are created they will have to search long, hard and deep for their ennobling inspiration and character forming ideals." (Richard McCulloch, The Ideal and Destiny, Coral Springs, Florida, Towncourt Enterprises Inc. 1982, p.351).
I recommend that your search include the National Museum of American Art.
(Note: According to a Smithsonian researcher, the collection described in this article has survived recent renovations, still intact and still in the Old Patent building. Only the name has changed, from NMAA to SAAM, "S" as in Smithsonian to identify it as part of that group.)