How Art Can Record History and Question It

As the 4th of July approaches and we prepare to celebrate Independence Day I was reminded of the painting Parson Weems’ Fable by the artist Grant Wood. I first saw the painting while living in Texas at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (https://www.cartermuseum.org/collection/parson-weems-fable) and it stuck in my memory because of its unusual qualities, but it wasn’t until recently that I dug deeper to understand the meaning behind the work.

It was painted at the end of the Great Depression, a time of intense challenges in the United States but also a time of hope. Regional Artists such as Wood were known for painting images that focused on distinctly American landscapes and a return to storytelling in art. Even if you don’t know much about art you may be familiar with another painting by Wood that has been reinvented and parodied many times in the modern era, called American Gothic: https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/grant-wood-american-gothic-whitney

Wood became famous for his iconic images but the meaning behind his paintings is more complex than they may at first appear. While Wood lived and worked in Iowa and had a sincere reverence for the people and places he depicted, there are elements of satire that critique the mythology of America’s origin story and identity. His painting, Parson Weems’ Fable depicts the fable of how George Washington, as a boy, chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When confronted, he stated “I cannot tell a lie.” and confessed to his actions. The figure in the foreground is Parson Weems drawing back the curtain on his own story and George Washington is shown with a boy’s body but his instantly recognizable face from the one-dollar bill.

The slaves of the Washington family are also depicted in the background picking cherries, which is a reality that exists alongside the idealized facts that we are often taught about our founding fathers. So, while this painting re-creates a popular fable of the time that celebrates George Washington’s strength of character it also signals in subtle ways to the viewer that there is more to the story. The inclusion of the curtain indicates that we are not looking at reality, but a recreation. The face of a much older Washington signals the fantasy of the story again in a slightly humorous way. For an excellent short explanation of all the other symbolism in the painting I recommend this short 6 minute video: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/american-art-to-wwii/social-realism/v/grant-wood-george-washington-and-an-enduring-american-myth

Other Links:

For information on American Regionalism in art: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/american-regionalism/

For information on Washington and his stance on slavery: https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/ten-facts-about-washington-slavery/

2 thoughts on “How Art Can Record History and Question It”

  1. Art can be a powerful tool for capturing history and questioning it, as exemplified by Grant Wood’s Parson Weems’ Fable. Wood’s iconic paintings, while focusing on distinctly American landscapes, also critique America’s origin story and identity. The inclusion of symbolism in the painting allows the viewer to see beyond the popular fable and perceive the more complex reality.

  2. Dear Author,

    I recently read your article, “How Art Can Record History and Question It,” and I wanted to express my appreciation for your thoughtful exploration of the intersection between art and history. Your writing was not only informative but also incredibly thought-provoking.

    Your discussion of how art can serve as a powerful tool for recording and questioning history was especially compelling. I appreciated how you highlighted the ways in which art can challenge dominant narratives and offer alternative perspectives. Your examples of artists like Kara Walker and Jenny Holzer were particularly powerful in illustrating this point.

    I would love to continue the discussion and ask if you have any thoughts on how we can use art to engage with difficult or uncomfortable histories, such as those related to racism or colonialism? How can we create space for diverse perspectives and voices to be heard through art?

    Thank you again for your insightful and thought-provoking article. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Warm regards,
    Angel

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