Allegorical Paintings

Early Americans saw their New World
in symbolic terms.

Allegory in art is when the subject of the artwork is used to symbolize a deeper meaning such as life, death, love, virtue, justice etc. Human figures are used to depict ideals. An allegorical painting might include figures emblematic of different emotional states of mind, or other abstract concepts such as truth, glory, beauty, freedom or bravery. The interpretation of an allegory therefore depends first on the identification of such figures. In the 18th century, allegorical figures were commonplace in art. Early American artists painted traditional allegorical scenes with contemporary Americans personifying virtues and fates. These paintings can become confusing and loose their meaning to people today. You need to know your mythology and history to read these images.

Above are some early American allegory paintings. The last one is America Guided by Wisdom. One of the reasons colonists came to the New World was for religious freedom. The parables in the Bible are allegories. Many European artists of the Renaissance and later painted these parables. People have been interpreting these paintings ever since. The images combine symbols and archetypal images into stories that can open a viewer to complex aspects of life. Learning the mythical figures, the Saints and poets was to improve one's thoughts and deeds. These paintings are about the ways to improvement.

In the early 1800s America was the most literate country in the world. Education was taken seriously by the people of this new country. Reading was how the public was going to become informed voters, able to arrange their own affairs. Stores and taverns had small pamphlets on many topics by the door. Public libraries were being formed by consolidating private collections. Reading was patriotic as well as liberating. The Greek myths were read in school, and then seen being played out in one's own town.

"You are more likely to see a comet, than an illiterate American"
        Thomas Jefferson

George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others were well known firefighters. It was easy to apply distinct virtues to them in paintings. Their images on early fire engines referred to the fact that they were fellow firemen. These leaders were also allegorical figures representing more than just the men themselves. Ben Franklin symbolizes American ingenuity and the inspiration that comes from being a free person. George Washington represented duty, responsibility, bravery and other virtues needed to fight fires. Firefighters themselves were symbols for a responsible, free and caring citizen.