The American Flag in American Art: A Brief Survey

By Noelle E. Desantis
Photo courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum

Despite our current political climate of division and steadfast party affiliations, as fellow Americans and art aficionados, let us set aside these perceived differences to celebrate our nation’s 248th birthday by examining the American flag through the lens of selected artwork.

Since its inception, our nation’s flag has often been used in art as a symbol of patriotism, freedom, unity, and power. Conversely, depictions of our flag have also been used as harbingers of strife and war, as well as visual expressions of our nation’s cultural struggles and inequalities.

The American Flag and American Valor

Early in our republic, depictions of the American flag in artwork conveyed stories of valor, freedom and patriotism, and were visual testaments to our glorious victory for independence. For example, several of Charles Willson Peale’s (1741-1827) portraits of George Washington from the Revolutionary War era show him standing victoriously before the American flag, such as George Washington After the Battle of Princeton, 1783.

Several decades later, artists continued to idealize our nation’s historic moments, such as in Emanuel Leutze’s (1816-1868) monumental canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. In Leutze’s rendition, despite the harsh winter conditions, soldiers struggle to navigate the small, overcrowded boat on the icy, formidable river, while both Washington and the American flag stand steadfast, alluding to America’s victorious destiny.

Sixty-six years later, American Impressionist Childe Hassam (1859-1935) featured the American flag in a similar spirit yet in a vastly different artistic style in his series of flag paintings that celebrate the America’s participation in and victories during World War I. Consisting of over thirty paintings, Hassam’s remarkable flag series reflects the patriotic fervor of the time and the collective call to support the war effort. His impressionistic style, with its loose brushwork and emphasis on light and atmosphere, lends a dynamic quality to the flags as they flutter and festoon the avenues of New York City.  For example, in his dramatic Avenue in the Rain, 1917, Hassam renders the flags in vibrant reds and blues against the gray backdrop, conveying resilience and national pride as America approaches its entry into the war.

Norman Rockwell’s (1894-1978) idealized images of everyday American life graced many covers of The Saturday Evening Post, reaching vast numbers of the American public.  Among his most iconic images is Rosie the Riveter, 1943, published on Memorial Day of that year. Rockwell’s narrative genius not only celebrates the importance of women’s contributions during World War II, but it also includes some less overt biblical and art historical references. Rosie’s form and pose is identical to that of Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512. Shown in workman’s clothes with a rivet and lunch box on her lap, Rosie glances nonchalantly to the side, as if momentarily distracted from eating her sandwich. The curve of the rivet hose brings the viewer’s gaze towards Rosie’s feet, where a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi manifesto Mein Kampf is shown under her shoe—like a bug that is easily squashed underfoot. Set against the bold stars and stripes of the American flag, this image is an unmistakable cultural narrative of women’s empowerment as well as America’s might and can-do spirit in the face of adversity.

The American Flag and Cultural Commentary

The American flag has not always symbolized glory or celebration in American art. For example, Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church’s (1826-1900) Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, ominously marks the outbreak of the American Civil War. Here Church depicts the American flag not as a tangible object but as a fleeting arrangement of sky, clouds, and stars that resemble our flag held together by a dead tree trunk. The turbulent sky and the flag’s transient appearance alludes to the uncertain outcome of the war between North and South—of brother fighting brother.

Regarded by many as the greatest 19th-century American painter, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) began his artistic career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. Although he produced a plethora of illustrations of the war during that period, let’s instead focus on his post-war painting, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877, which was originally titled Sketch – 4th of July in Virginia. At first glance, it’s a festive-looking scene of African Americans heading to an Independence Day celebration, but closer inspection reveals that Homer refers to the enduring legacy of slavery that African Americans continued to face years after emancipation. Through his depiction of shoeless children in tattered clothes and a boy holding a small American flag, Homer highlights the bitter irony of these formerly enslaved people who still do not enjoy all the benefits of equal human rights.

Fast forward to the 1960s and the flag paintings of Jasper Johns (b.1930), in particular his lithograph Moratorium, 1969. Commissioned for the anti-war Moratorium Marches against the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the artist displays our nation’s flag with agent-orange hued stars and camouflage-green and black stripes, punctured by a single white bullet hole. Within this visually powerful anti-war statement, Johns also incorporates an optical illusion that might be symbolic of hope or a return to the American ideal of peace. Should one focus on the white bullet hole for a minute then look to a blank wall, the American flag appears in its familiar color palette of red, white, and blue.

The American Flag: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

The American flag has long been a powerful symbol in American art. Because of our First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, artists are free to project their visions of national identity, patriotism, and social criticism. The American flag has always played a significant role in art and continues to inspire and provoke reflection of our nation’s values, aspirations, and struggles as we strive to become a more perfect union.


Noelle E. DeSantis is a contributing researcher, writer and fine art consultant for Art Peritus. Noelle holds an undergraduate degree in Art Education with a minor in Art History from Temple University, Philadelphia, as well as a graduate degree in Fine and Decorative Art from Sotheby’s Institute, London and University of Manchester, England. Noelle previously worked for American painting gallery Godel & Co. Fine Art, in New York City for over eleven years before launching her own business and freelance consulting in the art world.

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