By the time that Adolphe Yvon created this mural, allegorical painting was a form of storytelling that had been used by artists for centuries. The concept of genius dates to ancient Rome, where it meant the divine nature of every person, place, or thing. This massive work, painted shortly before the nation’s centennial of 1876, was the artist’s attempt to identify the characteristics making up the nature— or genius—of the United States of America.
Because the interpretation of history changes over time, this “lesson” in American virtues can be seen as outdated and offensive. Liberated slaves and Native Americans, for example, are depicted through the sensibilities of the time, and the romantic images conceived by the artist contrast sharply with reality. Indeed, late-nineteenth century America was not a land of opportunity for all. Learning stories of the past is necessary, however, in order for us to understand where we are in the present, and what may shape our future.
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Pamphlet c. 1876
Published for the installation of The Genius of America in the Grand Union Hotel
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Historical Images of The Genius of America on display at the Grand Union Hotel Ballroom