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.