The United States of America, 1947

Visual History of the United States of America
Arthur Szyk, Artist
Visual History of Nations
New York CIty, 1947
color lithograph (heliochrome)
Unrestored original condition
Good original condition, bright color, toned paper
18 × 16 inches
Sale Status: 
For Sale

            It is not often that Americana is translated into a 20th century idiom that relies as well on an art form from the European Middle Ages illuminated manuscript. This unusual post WWII color lithograph was created by the artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), a professional painter and miniaturist illuminator and political activist born in Poland to Jewish parents whose artistic training was in Cracow and Paris, before he immigrated to the United States in 1940. Prior to immigrating, Aurthus Szyk had served in the Polish Resistance against Soviet oppression and worked to oppose rising facism elsewhere in Europe. His work in America included anti-Axis cartoons and drawings. Szyk completed a series of patriotic art works as well as an illustrated Hagaddah. His art in America arose from a deeply felt personal expression of gratitude for the freedom he found.

            Arthur Szyk died in 1951 well before completion of the artistic project of which this print was one part. The art work was commissioned by Kasimir Bileski, a Canadian entrepreneur and philatelist. Each print in the commission was intended as the cover for an international stamp album of stamps issued by founding countries in the United Nations. His art in America was therefore a deeply felt personal expression of patriotic themes.

            The imagery Szyk chose for this visual history of the United States expresses freedom as the American challenge and goal for its very own citizens.  The print expresses as well America's twentieth century promise to the world to promote and protect freedom.  Beneath the powerful wings of America's Great Bald Eagle clutching both the olive branch of peace and a cluster of arrows, at the head of the hierarchy beneath "E Pluribus Unum", are two portraits. Visually singled out by the Eagle's downward pointed wing, to its right is a portrait of an African American man in a rural straw hat and to the Eagle's left is a Native American man with headband and feathers, each man's face framed by elaborate oak leaves and miniaturist imagery. The other portraits in this unusual composition are a similarly stern faced. Holding up the tile block of the print in heavily embellished lettering spelling out "The United States of America" are two working men - an American farmer cradling a pitchfork filled with corn stalks, his muscled arms exposed by rolled shirtsleeves, (a reference to Grant Wood's American Gothic perhaps) and the other, facing in the opposite direction in a blue denim engineer's cap is a machinist holding his large wrench, vise and at his feet a giant steel wheel with cogs.  Flanking each of them is an American serviceman with gun barrel pointed up and ready to use, looking inward towards these workers as guardians against any threat to the nation's civilian life.  

            Additional vignettes celebrate American technical ingenuity and can be read bottom to top in historical order. The steamboat, the Pony Express and an old locomotive are at the bottom of the print.  Midway up we see a vignette of modern New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay. At the top, the epitome of modern engineering is the Hoover Dam and a large refinery.

            Yet the tone of the print is hard to read. The promise of freedom, as understood by Szyk from his own oppression had not been kept with either the rural African American or the Native American. The American farmer and factory worker are cradling their tools as one might a rifle. The imagery of Manhattan and San Francisco has a travel brochure quality that is both fact and fantasy. At the bottom of the print, the final vignette labeled "Pony Express" shows a rider furiously driving his crazed horse (the rider seemingly engaged in the cruel and futile goal of whipping his horse on to outrun the modern train and airplane in the background). 

            As may also be appropriate to include for the student of antique wall maps, this print mirrors the layout and symbolic imagery of a 19th century patriotic wall map.


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