In the early years of the American nation, the need for a national symbol was acutely felt. The new nation appropriated many existing symbolic forms, but none were to become as pervasive as the eagle.
Before the eagle was officially sanctioned as the symbol for the United States, however, a partially clothed, indigenous woman wearing a feather headdress had served that function. This representation soon gave way to goddesslike personifications of the social virtues upon which the United States was founded. The most widespread example in the visual arts is Edward Savage’s print of his painting Liberty (46.67.85). Liberty, who appears in contemporary dress, gives nourishment to the bald eagle. The figure is a variation on the Goddess of Youth, yet the staff in the background, surmounted by Liberty’s cap, clearly signifies her new identity. This print was copied in paintings, embroidery, and Chinese reverse-painted glass for the American market. However, an emblem of a civic virtue such as Liberty was too complicated to serve as a national symbol. In Savage’s print, it is as if Liberty were passing the torch to the eagle to take up this purpose.
In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to design an official seal for the country to accompany its newly minted flag. Finally, in 1782, a design was accepted. Its main feature was an eagle, the ancient symbol of Jupiter, king of the gods, and, therefore, a symbol of ultimate authority (69.141.1a–d). The young nation was eager to model many of its institutions on the Roman Republic, so the eagle, proposed by William Barton, seemed a natural choice despite Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey. Charles Thomas modified the design by inserting an American bald eagle, which perfectly blended the classical symbol with a species native to the New World (62.256.3). The eagle holds arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other, symbolizing its birth during warfare but its hope for a prosperous, peaceful nation.
In 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris officially recognized the country as a sovereign, united whole in the eyes of the entire world. Symbols of unity proliferated as a result, and the eagle, with its majestic, visually simple form, served as the dominant emblem (59.89). The same year, the Society of the Cincinnati, a group formed by Continental and French officers at the close of the Revolution, adopted the bald eagle in the design for its insignia (35.46a, b). The society, named after the Roman hero Cincinnatus, strove to uphold the values of its namesake, a warrior-hero who rejected the trappings of power and returned to an agrarian lifestyle in times of peace. In this way, two classical symbols were invoked—that of the eagle of Jupiter and the warrior Cincinnatus. On the insignia, the bald eagle is used in a way similar to that on the Seal of the United States. In both instances, the eagle is the primary supporter of the shield, denoting that only freedom and unity (symbolized by the bald eagle) can continue to support both the Society of the Cincinnati and the United States government. The eagle, which is a predatory bird, was an appropriate symbol of American military and economic prowess. However, as is characteristic of most early depictions of the American eagle, this early rendering (35.46a, b) is of an immature, somewhat gawky animal with a small wingspan. As time progressed and the new nation matured into its place in the world, the eagle developed into a bold, imperial bird (59.89). William Rush’s monumental gilded wood eagles exemplify this new, majestic type of representation (2002.21.1). His sculpture reveals a masterful command of the subject and medium. Rush is recognized today as one of this country’s first portrait sculptors as well as a leading wood carver and gilder in the vibrant artisan community of early nineteenth-century America.
During this time, the symbol also proliferated in domestic decorative arts (1974.363.1). All over the new nation, the bald eagle was incorporated into designs for furniture, architecture, textiles (1974.32), metalwork, and porcelain. Part of the eagle’s popularity as a decorative motif was its ability to transition from the informal to the formal: it was equally at home on butter stamps in the kitchen and the best parlor furniture (50.145.358).
The private and public uses of decorative arts for the home, and, therefore, the eagles decorating them, were unified in the form of presentation silver (1993.167). In 1798, a yellow fever epidemic in the city of Philadelphia killed thousands of residents. Dr. Philip Syng Physick remained in the city to treat the sick when most others fled. To commemorate his service, the City Hospital presented him with two pieces of Neoclassical silver (2009.420.2). The magnificent twelve-sided urn is surmounted by an eagle finial, celebrating his act of patriotism in what was then the nation’s capital.
Today, the eagle remains one of the most prevalent symbols of the nation. From its genesis as an inelegant bird with a small wingspan, it has evolved into the magnificent form that graces the Seal of the United States today.
Liebster, Amy. “Eagles After the American Revolution.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eagl/hd_eagl.htm (June 2012)
Butler, Joseph T. The American Eagle: Spirit and Symbol. Katonah, N.Y.: Katonah Gallery, 1988.
Lawrence, E.A. “Symbol of a Nation: The Bald Eagle in American Culture.” Journal of American Culture13 (1990), pp. 63–69.
Taylor, Joshua C. America as Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.