What Hath God Wrought

In 1815, most Americans were the subject of “a tyranny of distance,” as writer Daniel Walker Howe put it at an event this weekend sponsored by Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Howe is author of “What Hath God Wrought,” a book that chronicles the changes between 1815 and 1845. Many of the men who brought those changes into being are buried in Green-Wood.

Howe said that in 1815, the state of things in the United States were such that if it existed today, it could be called a “third-world country.” One of the current residents of the cemetery, Samuel Morse, set change into motion when the words “What Hath God Wrought” were transmitted by telegraph. The invention, which can be compared to the impact of the internet in our own time, facilitated the growth of newspapers and large political parties.

In fact, had the invention existed before 1812, the war named for the year would probably not have occurred.

When the gold was discovered in California in 1848, the message traveled to China and Latin America before it reached New York and Europe, because telegraph cables hadn’t yet reached California. The first message in “Morse Code” went across the Atlantic to England in 1858.

Morse Daguerreotype
Morse Daguerreotype

Morse was better known in his own time as a prominent artist and painter of prominent figures including President Monroe. When he failed to secure a commission to paint the interior of the U.S. Capitol Dome, he traded a career in art for one in invention. On a trip to Paris, Morse met Louis Daguerre, another inventor who might have hindered the career of artists in those days. Daguerre, also buried in Green-Wood, is recognized today as the father of photography.

The photo with the audio clip above shows Forward the Course of an Empire Takes Its Way by Currier and Ives. I recognized it immediately from grade school history books and from a framed print my grandmother had. Both Currier and Ives are buried in Green-Wood. Howe said it would have been the cover of the book had it not been produced in 1866, after the period of time covered by the book.

The lecture was preceded with a trolley-bus tour of the cemetery, guided by Green-Wood historian Jeffrey Richman, author of the also excellent book Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, New York’s Buried Treasure.

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url artafterx.com will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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