Friday, January 25, 2008

And now, the rest of the story

The current president of the United States is known to wax eloquent about his favorite painting in his official autobiography. A particular painting that he acquired after becoming a 'born again Christian'. The painting evokes the Wild West and depicts a bedraggled horseman charging his steed up a craggy slope followed by a couple of other men on foot. Titled 'A Charge to Keep' by Wilhelm Heinrich Dethlef Körner, the President says that this painting conveys the message that we serve the One greater than ourselves (the title also is the title of a Methodist hymn written in the eighteenth century). An additional reason this turned out to be his favorite painting seems to be the supposed allusions to circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. Given the resurgent religious revivalism engorging the States, the reading seems appropriate if hackneyed.

Of course, a little bit of enterprising research by political journalist Jacob Weisberg has turned up this story behind the painting: (quoted from the Harpers magazine). It turns out that the title, message or meaning of the painting were all different…

"The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled “The Slipper Tongue,” published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.”

The parallels that may be drawn are entirely accidental.

Go figure.

W.H.D. Koerner, “A Charge to Keep”, 1916, Oil on canvas (Image ripped from Harpers magazine)

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