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Revisiting the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree

The painting "Parson Weems' Fable" by Grant Wood depicts a famous American myth about George Washington. It shows the importance of truth-telling and forgiveness, and reflects the tension in America during the start of World War II. The painting also highlights the complex history of early America's reliance on enslaved labor.

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
    When did this myth of the young George Washington not being able to tell a lie originate? Do you think it was responsible for the many generations of Americans who believed that our Presidents would not lie to the American people? Might this be a good time to go back to telling about this to our school children and contrast it with the current occupant of the White House?
    (7 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
      I understand your point and even though the current occupant of the WH is preternaturally awful (3/18), I think that we have to keep in mind that administration of the government is a series of compromises. Even with someone with the moral integrity of Obama, miscalculations will be made. I think the story of the cherry tree may be a metaphor for Washington's integrity in general, and I agree that this is something we should be teaching our children.
      (6 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Was the painting commissioned, and if not, what was Wood's motivation for painting it (notwithstanding the symbolic/historical items mentioned)?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user cheery.reaper15
    Early Renaissance artworks of the infant Christ often portayed him possessing an adult face. Could Wood have been making a comparison between these historical figures, albeit ironically?
    (2 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Brian Hutzell
    The pulling back of the curtain reminds me of Charles Willson Peale’s “The Artist In His Museum.” Another little joke from Wood?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Brett
    Parson Weems in 1806 invented a lie about Washington, although he (Weems) had good intentions. Could Wood in 1939 be warning us about the use of lies for political purposes?

    Btw, note that Grant Wood and George Washington have the same initials. Cooincidence?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

- [Steven] We're in the Amon Carter Museum Of American Art looking at one of my favorite paintings by the American artist, Grand 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 Lock Weems in his fifth edition on his biography on George Washington, incorporated the famous folklore of George Washington. - [Steven] So the story was that Washington as a boy, was on his fathers farm and took a hatchet, and cut down one of his cherry trees. His father confronted him and said 'Do you know who did this?' And Washington's famous response, according to Weems, was, 'I cannot tell a lie, Pa.' - In the Weems' version the father is so grateful that his son has confessed that he applauds him for his truthfulness and is not angry but forgiving. - [Steven] So there really are two moral aspects to this story. One is the importance of truth telling especially for the first Presidents 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 Wood's version the father is actually not forgiving, he's stern, he grips the cherry tree with so much force you see the blood in his hand. - [Steven] 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 mid-west just a few years after the dust bowl had taken place and so you had a county that was seeking it's roots, it's moral foundation. - Wood felt that American folklore was something that Americans could celebrate at this time of trauma. - [Steven] 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 part-take 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 Wood had a deep history in theater, he started in the 1920's, 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 this 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. - [Steven] 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 Wood's humor. - [Steven] 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 theater with painting to help viewers to participate. - [Steven] Now Wood was one of a triumvirate of artists that were well known as Regionalists. These were artist that although versed in European traditions decided to focus their art, their subject matter on the heartland of America. Wood left the East Coast, he went back to Iowa, and he put down roots there but declaring his separation from the European tradition. - Regionalism reached its high in the early 30's, and at that moment the idea was looking at the heartland in a way to restore faith in America. - [Steven] 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 been seen harvesting cherries. And If we look in the extreme background, we 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 and slaved people. And that we have a reference to the complex history of early America and it's reliance on enslaved labor. - I think he's also portaying 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. It's a fascinating contradiction with the sky above which is so dark and ominous. - [Steven] In fact some art historians have noted the storm clouds that are gathering as an illusion 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 1930's 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 and such contrast to the seizing of power by dictators in Europe at this time. - Wood 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 him 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.