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How President Obama Can Find a 21st Century Agenda in a 19th Century Painting

It is a coincidence of history, though a powerful one, that our nation’s first African American President is being inaugurated in 2009, the same year as we celebrate the bicentennial of the President who ended the enslavement of African Americans. The theme chosen for the inauguration of Barack Obama fittingly acknowledges this connection by invoking a phrase spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “A New Birth of Freedom.”

This theme will echo throughout the ceremonies -- for example, when President Obama is sworn into office on the same copy of the Bible used for President Lincoln’s inauguration. And the theme will be made visible when the new President sits down to a formal lunch with Congress. Set behind him as the chosen backdrop for the event will be a painting on loan from the New York Historical Society: View of the Yosemite Valley (1865) by Thomas Hill, completed in the year when Lincoln saw the Civil War brought to its close.

The resplendent valley shown in Hill’s painting is an image born of the twin ideals of that moment in American history: national unity, and westward expansion. These ideals have long since become elements of a narrative that scripts Lincoln as the President who ushered in a new dominion of “American greatness” -- a phrase that our new President has repeatedly summoned up.

But what does “American greatness” require of us? View of the Yosemite Valley offers at least two answers.

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When it was first exhibited in the mid-19th century, Hill’s painting amounted to a call to action, setting before the viewer a vast territory that seemed to beg for exploration. The artist decorously symbolized the forces of westward expansion in the figures of a well-dressed couple on horseback, who for the moment are doing nothing more in California than enjoying the view. As if to underscore the idea that this terrain was open to new users, Hill symbolized the original residents in the figure of a youthful Indian hunter, placed in a marginal position in a lower corner.

Perhaps viewers felt some regret that Native Americans would lose their place in this gorgeous landscape. (Elegies about the passing away of the Indian were not uncommon at the time.) And it’s also possible that the physical splendor evoked in the painting might have prompted desires to keep this special place unspoiled. The competing claims of commerce and conscience, always in uneasy juxtaposition in American history, were certainly implicit in the painting from the start -- but to a 19th century audience, the overall message of this View of the Yosemite Valley might have been summed up in two words: Manifest Destiny.

Today, Hill’s painting still has the power to speak to us -- but as often happens with works of art, the terms of its message have shifted with the years. When the President takes his seat before this painting at the Inaugural luncheon, perhaps he will hear a different call to action.

In today’s America, View of the Yosemite Valley may appeal to us to forge a new relationship between commerce and conscience, in which the development of alternative energy sources, based on responsible stewardship of the environment, can help further the nation’s prosperity. And of course President Obama will hear the call to carry on with the still unfinished business of unifying our nation, so that no group is pushed to the margins of America’s greatness. Our new President has repeatedly stressed that we are an undivided United States of America. Let’s see the young Indian in the corner of Hill’s painting repositioned under our new President’s leadership, so he’s as advantaged by Lincoln’s ideals as Lincoln would have wanted.

The image of American greatness is still before us all -- President Obama included. Let’s make sure we look at it with clear eyes, and listen to the call to action it’s issuing for today, and tomorrow.