Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans of all races, classes, and genders drew inspiration from the ancient Mediterranean – 71Bait

The ancient world of the Mediterranean has long permeated American society, from museum collections to home furnishings. The design of the country’s public monuments, buildings, and universities, as well as its legal system and form of government, demonstrate the enduring influence of Mediterranean antiquity on American culture.

Until the late 19th century, Americans encountered antiquity almost exclusively through reproductions—in books, works of art, and even popular plays. Few could afford to travel abroad to see Mediterranean artifacts firsthand.

But despite barriers to entry, many Americans forged personal ties to the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean—not just Greek and Roman, but Egyptian and Israelite as well. Perhaps the newness of American culture inspired this deep interest in the ancient past.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the influence of Mediterranean antiquity on America, even before it officially became a country, is how it transcended cultural boundaries of race, class, and gender. The art and literature of antiquity was not reserved for a privileged few, but was often embraced by Americans of all stripes—including the enslaved black poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) and the black and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907). But the circumstances of these encounters and the way individual Americans thought about the ancient world varied greatly.

I am an art historian specializing in ancient Mediterranean art and culture. What fascinates me most is the way Americans made creative connections between the past and the present from the very beginning, despite being separated by thousands of miles and millennia of history.

In researching and selecting artworks for the Antiquity and America exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, I was thrilled to show an extraordinarily diverse range of American encounters with the ancient world, particularly in portraiture.

Education mark

Take, for example, Samson Occom (1723-1792), a member of the Mohegan nation, Presbyterian minister, and one of the first Native Americans to write an autobiography in English.

Samson Occom’s depiction contains symbols of both the sitter’s indigenous identity and his connections to Mediterranean antiquity.
Painted by Nathaniel Smibert. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art

His unfinished portrait, painted by Nathaniel Smibert (1735-1756) in the mid-18th century, alluded to Occom’s indigenous identity in the coloring of his skin and the hairstyle of his hair. At the same time, he also referred to his training in classical literature and rhetoric, acquired through studying with Eleazar Wheelock (1711-1779), a minister of the Connecticut Congregation.

Occom’s pose and draped cape are reminiscent of those found on ancient statues of Roman senators – a portrait convention well known in early America from prints circulating at the time – and one that would later become very popular in American society.

While his study of Greek and Latin was undoubtedly a source of great pride for Occom – and a way for him to level the playing field with the European colonists – it was used by others to demonstrate the “civilizing” impact of European culture and education in Europe to demonstrate the British colonies.

In 1776 Eleazar Wheelock sent his former pupil Occom to Britain to raise money for an Indian school – funds that were eventually used to found Dartmouth College. Occom later accused Wheelock of using it as a “gazing stock” in Europe while simultaneously planning to use the funds to benefit white settlers.

form public opinion

A portrait of Sengbe Pieh, also known as Cinqué, who led the Amistad slave ship rebellion in 1839, is an example of how black Americans used the classical world for political purposes.

Painting of a black man holding a bamboo staff in a toga-like outfit and looking to the left.  The background shows a landscape with a cliff, a distant mountain, tropical trees and a moody, cloudy sky.
The depiction of Sengbe Pieh, who led the revolt on the slave ship Amistad, in the pose and robes of an ancient Roman senator was a deliberate way of influencing public opinion.
Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art

This stunning portrait by John Sartain (1808-1897), commissioned by Robert Purvis (1810-1898), a black Philadelphian and prominent abolitionist, was intended to capture the popular image of Pieh and his fellow Africans during their trial before the colonel Tribunal for mutiny and murder coin 1840-1841.

Pieh’s African identity is evident not only in the color of his skin, but also in the bamboo stick he is holding and the landscape in the background that represents his homeland. The white cloak draped over his shoulder would have been reminiscent of the white robes worn by Roman senators and thus of the Roman virtues of honor and dignity.

Pieh and his fellow Africans were eventually acquitted and returned to the colony of Sierra Leone in 1842.

Feminist icon

Woman posed outdoors in flowing robes with a lute.  Handwritten scrolls, the sea and distant cliffs can be seen in the background.
At the turn of the 20th century, a portrait of an American woman, portrayed as the Greek poetess Sappho, linked the sitter to themes in the ancient work.
Painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1899. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Caroline Sanders Truax (1870-1940), one of the first women admitted to the New York State Bar, was so enamored with the ancient past that she was portrayed by the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) as the Greek poet Sappho became.

This was a bold choice for portraying an American woman in 1899. Sappho, whose writings are among the only surviving sources of female authorship from antiquity, was already an icon of the first wave feminist movement, and the homoerotic themes of her poetry were well understood . Was the choice of the artist – or of the sitter? The most likely answer is that this was done by mutual consent, perhaps inspired by Truax’s knowledge of classical language and literature – and her own interest in composing poetry.

The portrait caused a sensation in New York society when it arrived in Paris from the artist’s studio. It has been featured in several portrait exhibitions and newspaper articles – and proudly hung in their home by Truax and her husband.

Painting of a man and his daughter walking under an intricately sculpted Roman arch.
The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) walks with his daughter under the Arch of Titus in Rome, with the famous Colosseum in the background.
Painted by George Healy. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art

For generations of Americans, ancient Mediterranean history and literature provided fertile ground for contemporary comparison. It was universal enough to be introduced into debates about the constitution and the basic principles of democracy, slavery and abolition, and women’s rights and suffrage. It was also of great individual importance to Americans from many different backgrounds – a past with which they were familiar, despite the millennia and miles that separated the United States from the ancient Mediterranean.

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