The New Nation: The Creation of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts


October 20, 2014
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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Book Review: The New Nation: The Creation of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts

The art of Mort Künstler, text by Edward G. Lengel. Sterling Publishing, 2014, ISBN: 1-4549-0773-8, ISBN13: 9781454907732, 9×10 hardcover, 208 color pages.

We learn history through documents, but pictures make it come alive. It is unfortunate that relatively few pictures survive from the era of the American Revolution compared to the plethora of images that became available in the age of photography. We have portraits and caricatures of many key figures, and a few paintings and drawings depicting locations and events. The scarcity of imagery from the era creates a great opportunity for present-day artists to render portrayals of everyday scenes and singular events of the time period.

Artist Mort Künstler has seized this opportunity by creating a stunning series of pictures representing key events in the birth of the United States, from the first permanent European settlements to the War of 1812, with the heaviest focus on the years of the American Revolution. Künstler’s paintings are highly realistic, and he has a particular talent for capturing activities; his pictures have a sense of energy. They are images of life, not just bland still portraits. Assembled into a 200-page book featuring 90 original images plus a number of period pictures, maps and documents, The New Nation takes us through 200 years of history in colorful, dramatic fashion.

The pictures are put in context with text by Edward G. Lengel, one of the foremost scholars on the new nation who is well-versed in primary sources that give first-hand accounts of the events depicted. Accurately summarizing complex events in a few paragraphs is very difficult and requires a great deal of knowledge and discernment. The author is equal to the task, providing crisp prose richly infused with passages from primary sources that evoke the same vividness as the pictures that they complement.

In spite of its powerful imagery and text, the book has its weaknesses. It’s very obvious that the artist relied heavily on historical reenactors as models, which means that common mistakes made by reenactors are faithfully replicated in the pictures. We see clothing that hangs poorly due to errors in tailoring, articles of equipment that do not match any known historical pictures or surviving artifacts, and equipment used in inappropriate situations. We are given the impression, for example, that all British soldiers wore bearskin caps at all times, when in reality only a few regiments and companies did so and even those only at certain times. We see none of the adaptations made to British uniforms for campaigns, even in cases where those adaptations are well documented by pictorial evidence from the era. These are pedantic details, but they do diminish the effectiveness of some of the images. When compared to images composed during the 1770s and 1780s, the differences in posture and tailoring are obvious; the artist would’ve done well to draw more on original artwork than on reenactors. Fortunately, the artist’s strength is in capturing moods, and in this regard the pictures have great impact in spite of occasional deficiencies of detail.

The researcher who wishes to delve deeper into the textual passages will be disappointed by the lack of footnotes or other corroboration between the text and the source material. The bibliography is quite short and seems to offer just a few general references rather than identifying all of the sources used. In some cases the authors of first-hand passages are named clearly enough that the complete source can be found without difficulty, but many are not; the reader who’d like to learn more about the writings of the “British officer in General Simon Fraser’s Scottish regiment,” for example, will find it impossible to identify the source. This doesn’t diminish the impact of the text, but does make the book less effective as starting point for further study.

In spite of its limitations, The New Nation is a beautiful work filled with powerful images and insightful text. It is outstanding for the casual historian who appreciates broad studies. It is an ideal book to introduce new students to early American history in an engaging manner, for the visual impact of Künstler’s work is impressive and Lengel’s text is concise, readable and vivid. For anyone wishing to see and feel the critical events of the nation’s founding, this book is ideal.


  • Don,

    Great review. I found your parsing of the weaknesses interesting. With my historical fiction, it is in these details that I try to be as precise as possible because it is the details that make the historical imagery so valuable. I like Kunstler’s work, but he gets a lot wrong even in his Civil War pieces–where there is loads of useful artifacts and surviving gear to explore (not to mention photographs). It is one reason why I like Troiani so much; his care and attention to detail is apparent.

  • For the most part, I agree with Don Hagist’s review though I think a 9 would be more consistent with my reading so far (about 75%). On certain levels this is an exquisite, well-designed book. Mort Kunstler’s art selects subjects one might not ordinarily expect from an artist focusing on the American Revolution as well as pre-war and post-war focus. I thought the images were well-researched. The accompanying text has just enough depth and interest to hold the reader’s interest between graphics. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite piece: I liked Washington’s Watch Chain and The Spy, two subjects that have been recently covered in this Journal. I also enjoyed The Lamplighter as a depiction of everyday life. If you’re looking around to give a holiday gift or birthday present for someone interested in history regardless of the level of study or age, this book is ideal. Lots of visuals, interesting text and coverage of a wide variety of subjects.

  • Well done review. I have so far found it true that in order to captivate attention – especially with the younger generation (inserted in a crotchety old man tone) – it is essential to have images and the less they are photographs the more difficult it becomes. A rant could be had on the inability of youth to imagine or address the text in such a way as to develop a mental image of a physical place, face or action, but more and more it seems that in the age of technology there is a lack of that creative ability.
    With that being said, kudos to any artist willing to endeavor to bring to life some aspects of an era pre-photography and even more so pre-video. The lack of endnotes is unsettling, but we have discussed on this board several times the concerns with notes and primary sources. Continued discourse may bring a surge toward ensuring releases have both – Publishers take note.

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