Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “The American Cincinnatus” (1919)
When I was a kid, I picked up a copy of the 1932 Georgetown yearbook for a dime at a second-hand store my mother and I used to go to. Being a weird kid, I thought it was cool– all these old photos of guys from the 30s, this kind of deco design (see below), and interspersed throughout reproductions of paintings of George Washington (1932 being the bicentennial of his birth). I remembered the one above this week when I was teaching a Latin class and explaining a reference to the Roman dictator, Cincinnatus. Living in the Internet age, it didn’t take much time to track down this image, which, as I came to discover, was painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, an American whose work was once prized and now dismissed. There isn’t really very much to recommend the painting– Washington pretty much looks like he does on the dollar bill, there’s an image of a contented slave that is disturbing, and I have to think those kids shouldn’t be so close to the forge despite the safety gate of the yoke. There’s a part of me that likes these old set-pieces of American history, even though I know they’re a kind of propaganda.