When Madeline Kelty at Smithsonian Magazine asked me to contribute to their Star Spangled Banner issue, I decided that other artists would probably paint flags and portraits of Francis Scott Key. So I decided to do a painting of Fort McHenry.
Fort McHenry sits low on the peninsula that juts out into Baltimore Harbor. As most school kids know, it was the target of British shelling during the War of 1812, but survived the bombardment, leading Francis Scott Key, a lawyer being held on a truce ship in the harbor that night, to compose a poem that more than a hundred years later (1931) was adopted by the US Congress as our un-singable national anthem.
Of course I had no way of knowing what the fort actually looked like during the long night it was besieged – or on the morning after, for that matter. I found old prints of the scene, but saw no point in copying them or even relying on them for historical accuracy. They looked to be the products of various artists' imaginations. So in the end, I decided to use my own.
This, then, is a sort of conceptual landscape of the fort on the morning after that battle, with its famous flag still flying high above the horizon.
It’s not necessarily a realistic picture: on that particular morning, there'd still have been some British warships left riding at anchor in the harbor. But it’s a picture of the fort on the country's new morning: because in a sense the ending of the War of 1812 really was our country's national dawn.
The War of 1812 is often called "the forgotten war." Yet there are reasons it should be remembered. Coming a generation after the American Revolution, it settled many of the disputes with England that had remained unresolved from that conflict. And just as important, perhaps, it created a new national identity for the fledgling United States, both at home and abroad.
Although neither the US nor Britain could plausibly claim to have won the War of 1812, the United States, by holding its own against one of the great armies of the world, finally convinced American citizens and foreign governments alike that the American experiment in self-government – long considered by some to be a dubious prospect – might actually succeed.
At home, the war’s successful resolution also tempered the rancorous political differences that had poisoned civil discourse during the feuding Adams and Jefferson administrations. This led to a period in American history that even in those days was called “The Era of Good Feelings."
This dawn of a new age then is what I had in mind when I decided to do the painting. And as for reference, I found that that I didn’t have to rely on somebody’s old engravings. I could use an earlier painting of my own.
A few years ago, I did ten paintings of Baltimore harbor as it is today. Unlike most of my assignments, which are purely professional in origin, this one began as the result of a personal friendship.
My friend Jennifer Phillips is a designer who lives and works in Baltimore and is Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. A few years ago, she was asked to design materials for a real estate development project in Baltimore harbor. And as part of the concept she presented to the clients, she asked me if I'd be interested in doing some paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the site.
In publishing, of course, we don’t get many opportunities to do landscapes or cityscapes. But Jennifer and I had traveled together and she was well aware of the landscape drawings I had filled my sketchbooks with. So she thought that an assignment of this sort was something I might be interested in.
I jumped at the opportunity and following her lead, did ten paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the harbor where two hundred years ago British mortars and Congreve rockets (the “bombs bursting in air”) had marked the end of England’s effort to invade the US from the east coast.
Of course, in doing these pictures neither Jennifer nor I were thinking of the War of 1812. We were simply aiming to present some scenes, more graphic then representational even, of contemporary life along the Baltimore waterfront. For me it was a refreshing experience.
When I was younger I tended to think of landscapes as interesting only to the eye. Who wants to draw pictures of trees, I thought; I wanted to draw pictures of ideas. Ideas are as real as trees but since they're invisible, you have to rearrange aspects of the visible world to show the invisible. You might call such pictures landscapes of experience.
But as I got older and began to travel; and then started to fill my sketchbooks with drawings of faraway places – places that in my Ohio childhood I had never dreamed I’d see – I found a new respect for things that are interesting only to the eye.
And so if I had ever disdained landscapes or taken them lightly, I found that I could get unexpected satisfaction out of paintng things that were sitting right in front of me: editing reality, as it were – in this case silos, warehouses, cranes and boats – instead of having to make everything up.
The paintings are small: only eight inches by ten, and as a small regional assignment they never got much attention. Still, they got my attention and led in the space of a few months or a year to a far more expansive project: a series of 40 pastel drawings of Andalusian castles for a Spanish publisher.
Jennifer's project had led me into a new line of pictures and into a new medium. And with this little painting of Fort McHenry as it is today, a national historical site virtually unchanged from 200 years ago, it gave me the information I used for the much larger painting I finshed last month for the Smithsonian.
While the contributors were working on this project, a researcher from Smithsonian Magazine called each of us to ask for a few words about why we were doing what we were doing. I told her about the Baltimore harbor paintings, of course, but when she asked me how I happened to know a bit about the War of 1812, I said maybe it's because of where I grew up.
I grew up in Fremont Ohio, just a few miles south of Lake Erie, not far from the Canadian border. Fremont's history as a town actually began with the War of 1812. In those days it was called Lower Sandusky, after the Sandusky river that runs through it and empties into Lake Erie. In 1812 Ohio was the northwest frontier, a state for only nine years; and as the lowest point of entry from Canada into the US, it was the perfect site for the British to invade. On August 1, 1813, they did, disembarking at a low spot on the river and laying siege to the small palisade fort that sat on the edge of a wooded ravine.
The Battle of Fort Stephenson took place the next day and, according to the history books, it was the last land battle of the War of 1812 fought in the western United States. The fort's defenders drove the British back into the lake, where a month later they were defeated at a decisive naval battle at Put-in-Bay off South Bass island. The next spring they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay area, which led to the burning of Washington and the shelling of Fort McHenry.
In modern day Fremont, the town library sits on the site of the old picket fort; and when I was a kid there was a little museum of sorts in the basement, with artifacts under glass going back to the town's birth as a frontier outpost. Since I grew up in a home with no books, I was in and out of the library from an early age and occasionally, once I was tall enough to see above the glass cases downstairs, I used to wander around the basement, looking at stuff. My favorite items were the knives, forks and spoons the fort's defenders had fired at the British when they ran out of shot.
It's funny how an odd detail like that can interest a nosy kid, but it was the oddness of it that got my attention. Later, in Chicago I discovered Robert Remini's books and began to read up on the whole Jacksonian era. But I'd have to say that my painting of Fort McHenry actually had its roots in the basement of the Birchard Public Library, where as a little kid I learned that in a pinch you could hold off an enemy with kitchen utensils.