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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:25

Revisiting the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art looking at one of my favorite paintings by the American artists Grant Wood this is parson Weems fable most Americans looking at this painting in 1939 would have been familiar with parson Weems and with the fable of Washington but modern audiences I think are less familiar and that was one of the motivations of the artist he wanted to reassert what he thought was an important piece of American mythology Mason Locke Wiens in his fifth edition on his biography on George Washington incorporated the famous folklore of George Washington so the story was that Washington as a boy was on his father's farm and took a hatchet and cut down one of his cherry trees his father confronted him and said you know who did this and Washington's famous response according to Weems was I cannot tell a lie ha in the Wemyss version the father is so grateful that his son has confessed that he applauds him for his truthfulness and is not angry but forgiving so there really are two moral aspects to this story one is the importance of truth-telling especially for the first president of the United States for the general who is credited with winning the Revolutionary War but the other is the forgiveness of the paternal figure and in woods version the father is actually not forgiving he Stern he grips the cherry tree with so much force you see the blood in his hand it's important to understand that this was painted in 1939 this was the beginning of the Second World War and a conversation was taking place in the United States as we were witnessing the rise of fascism across Europe but even fascist tendencies here this is the very end of the Great Depression this is in the Midwest just a few years after the Dust Bowl had taken place and so you had a country that he was seeking its roots its moral foundation Wood felt that American folklore was something that Americans could celebrate at this time of trauma everything in this painting is systematized everything is a kind of visual fable the cherry tree is not a real cherry tree it is a perfected cherry tree it's a stage prop in a certain way and in fact the entire painting opens up to us as a kind of stage we see parson Weems in his green jacket the largest figure in the painting lifting back a curtain wood with his love of theatricality wanted viewers to partake in his paintings and by drawing back the curtain by parson Weems pointing directly to the fable being portrayed like a play that's being performed it invites the viewer in a very direct manner and would had of deep history in theater he started in the 1920s he organized the community players in Cedar Rapids Wood was responsible for all the set construction and you see his knowledge of set construction and also that falsehood of set construction coming through in his painting not only in the organization of the trees looking like props but also the lighting a very focused spotlight hits on the story of Washington and his father one of my favorite aspects of this painting is the young Washington with the mature head that we know from the dollar bill that comes from a portrait by Gilbert Stuart by using gilbert stuart's famous portrait head of washington he said it provided a means for his audience to immediately recognize Washington which it did but I think it also is a reflection of woods humor this is a completely theatrical invention this is a construction of American identity it's a construction of American memory and it's wood conflating the ideas of theatre with painting to help viewers to participate now Wood was one of a triumvirate of artists that were well known as regionalists these were artists that although versed in European traditions decided to focus their art their subject matter on the heartland of America would left the East Coast he went back to Iowa and he put down roots there declaring his separation from the European tradition regionalism reached its height in the early 30s and at that moment the idea was looking at the Heartland in a way to restore faith in America parson Weems Washington's father and of course the young Washington are in the foreground but there are additional figures in this painting at the left edge there are two African Americans who can be seen harvesting cherries and if we look in the extreme background you can just make out the red and white of the clothing worn by somebody else harvesting and so we have a sense of the productivity of these trees but we're also reminded of the fact that Washington's father owned enslaved people and that we have a reference to the complex history of early America and its reliance on enslaved labor I think he's also portraying at this moment in 39 with the depression this idea of productivity that just seems to reach to the skies in this almost positive optimistic outlook and it's a fascinating contradiction with the sky above which is so dark and ominous in fact some art historians have noted the storm clouds that are gathering as an allusion to the coming of war Washington had late in his career cautioned against American entanglements with European powers and that's an issue that must have felt important in the 1930s when the First World War was still a recent memory and the United States was now again contemplating involvement in Europe and Washington was wildly popular when he left office he could have seized permanent power but he chose to step down and he set a model for the peaceful transition of power in such contrast to the seizing of power by dictators in Europe at this time would at this moment in 1939 is looking at the facts of history the facts of Washington and his important role but also the myth that became associated with them of telling the truth so there's this mixture of fact and fiction of myth and folklore that wood has so beautifully brought together at this time of deep conflict and tension between modernity history and tradition you