“Our Banner in the Sky” is a painting made almost entirely of belief, which is why I liked it at first sight, in reproduction no less, advertising the Met’s 2013 Civil War and American Art exhibition in a newsletter. When I went to see it in person I was pleased that the painting is tiny, seven and a half by eleven and a quarter inches. Frederick Edwin Church made the painting in response to news of the Union flag having survived (albeit in tatters) the Confederate bombing during the Battle of Fort Sumter. It was later turned into a popular poster through chromolithography.
In painting, the acceptance of meanings and feelings is usually dependent on how convincing the work is on the spatial terms it sets out. “Our Banner in the Sky” casts mid-19th century nationalism as trompe-l’oeil-based hyperbole, the American flag appearing immanently, via Manifest Destiny, in the confluence of a striated, star-spangled sunset and a tree. What must have read then as an auspicious alignment that exposed the truth and inevitability of a united United States and its democratic government reads clearly now as something between propagandistic fortune-telling and flat-out delusion. (There is a very nice corollary between thinking of this painting as an apparition and the anecdote of the flag-as-symbol coming to Jasper Johns “in a dream.”)
There are a lot of things to like about the work from a contemporary vantage point: that Church is able to pull off near-modernist flatness in a landscape painting (amazing enough on its own) through a behind-the-picture-plane reverse-anamorphosis move; the similarity between the logic of this image and that of picking out which cloud best resembles a T-Rex; how funny it is, how straightforward. Because it is so small, the main conceit of the image as revelation is contradicted by the brushwork, the conceptual sleight of hand undermined by the obviousness of the touch.
What is remarkable about this image, and kind of ludicrous in 2015, is that it worked—socially. As if to answer Union concerns that the war was the right course of action, Church said, unequivocally, that the flag was still there. People loved it—they bought the poster.
In my own looking, I’m most interested in the terms of belief. “Our Banner in the Sky” feels impossible to make unironically in 2015 because we don’t, as a country, believe in the same way; and the art world certainly hasn’t since the ’60s, at the latest. The painting is not for me, really, because I have conflicted and ambiguous feelings about my Americanness that a meditation on the flag isn’t going to fix. But I like thinking about what the emotional conditions (and, as an extension, the physical realities) would have to be for that to be enough to help me to justify a war and a way of life.