These Artistic Interpretations of the Star-Spangled Banner Call Out the Inner Patriot | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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As a child, Nicholas Alan Cope recalls hearing the national anthem at Orioles games in Baltimore, the song's hometown. As an adult, he rose to the challenge of photographing the icon itself. (Nicholas Alan Cope)

These Artistic Interpretations of the Star-Spangled Banner Call Out the Inner Patriot

In paintings, photos, music, videos and poetry, contemporary artists intrepret the flag that bravely waved above Fort McHenry

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As national treasures go, it was a bargain: $405.90, paid to Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore, who fashioned it from red, blue and undyed wool, plus cotton for the 15 stars, to fly at the fortress guarding the city’s harbor. An enormous flag, 30 by 42 feet, it was intended as a bold statement to the British warships that were certain to come. And when, in September 1814, the young United States turned back the invaders in a spectacular battle witnessed by Francis Scott Key, he put his joy into a verse published first as “Defence of Fort M’Henry” and then, set to the tune of a British drinking song, immortalized as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The flag itself, enshrined since 2008 in a special chamber at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History following a $7 million restoration—and due to be celebrated June 14 with a nationwide singalong (anthemforamerica.si.edu)—remains a bold statement. But what is it saying now, 200 years later? We asked leading painters, musicians, poets and other artists to consider that question. You might be inspired by their responses, or provoked. But their artworks give proof that the anthem and the icon are as powerful as ever, symbols of an ever-expanding diversity of ideas about what it means to be an American.

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R.O. Blechman, a cartoonist-illustrator familiar with deadline panic, he pictured Francis Scott Key in a creative jam: "I managed to save him (and myself) with that deus ex machina, the midshipman (R.O. Blechman)

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Canadian-born painter Anita Kunz, who became a U.S. citizen seven years ago, created a figure in acrylic and watercolor that pays tribute to women's overlooked role in society. She hopes it expresses "history, heroism and pride." (Anita Kunz)

Christoph Niemann
Each twisted thread in this new artwork symbolizes individual freedom, says designer-illustrator Christoph Niemann. But "when you zoom out you realize its all interwoven, and all these individual turns that seem random are part of the grid." (Christoph Niemann)

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A grandson of Irish immigrants who proudly displayed the American flag, O'Brien found few good images of Francis Scott Key. Now the anthem's author has the oil portrait he deserves. (Tim O'Brien)

Broad Stripes and Bright Stars by George Green

Composing this poem, Green recalled seeing Jimi Hendrix perform the national anthem in 1969 and watching the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks from a New York rooftop.

It was a joyful noise unto the Lord
that Hendrix made that morning, smelting down
the national anthem. He did a Motown saraband
and roused the bleary throng of lotus-eaters

so gallantly streaming there in the Woodstock pasture.
The gang at the V.F.W. was not amused,
preferring a traditional arrangement
of the peppy trumpet march turned drinking song

first known as “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Enter Francis Scott Key, the lawyer-poet,
perched in the rigging of a British sloop,
an overdressed envoy gesticulating

like a tenor toward the bombed fort and snapping flag,
his verses coming in a vatic trance
to be scribbled later on an envelope.
All night on deck Doc Beane had paced and nattered,

“Is our flag still there?” It was, and Key’s poetastery
was soon sung out by choirs across the land.
But the president and his bewildered cabinet
had gathered like rambling gypsies on a hilltop,

the better to behold their smoking capital,
and Dolley Madison, disguised as a farmwife,
wandered in a wagon, up and down the roads,
for two days nearly lost in the countryside


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"The first stanza (O Say Can You See...) makes the flag musical," the painter Peter Halley says of his vision for this flowing photomontage. "In a way the stars and stripes get equated with streaming and bursting." (Peter Halley)

Pianist Rachel Grimes (Jeremy Cowart)

Pianist Rachel Grimes, who says "independence and freedom" are critical to artists, thought about Mary Pickersgill and "how deeply personal making the flag would have been."


Daniel Libeskind
To renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, a Polish immigrant, the U.S. flag means "freedom of the individual, of religion, of democracy." Steel and aluminum convey the symbol's indestructibility. (photograph by Henry Leutwyler)

Brad Holland
"The War of 1812 was very present in my life growing up," says artist Brad Holland, who was raised in Fremont, Ohio, the site of Fort Stephenson, which was attacked by the British. His subject -- Fort McHenry the morning after the 1814 battle -- seems, deceptively, an "unfortified place." (Brad Holland)

The pioneering video artist has captured the ambient sound of cars passing and slowed it to one-quarter time, matching the flag image and creating a startling new perception of a familiar sight.


Terry Winters
Terry Winter's notebook-collage is based on a 1914 photograph of two women at the Smithsonian working to restore the Star-Spangled Banner in a room with a model of a giant squid. (Terry Winters)

"This was just one person, making one thing," says artist and filmmaker Matt Mahurin of the original banner's fabricator. "And the object survived-- but more importantly, the ideas did."


From Ralph Lauren Studio, the American designer's creative team, comes a banner tribute reminiscent of a homespun tapestry: oil paint on burlap, about 1 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet. (Photo by Travis Rathbone)

Jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson (Clayton Cubitt)

"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives," says jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson of her inspiration.


Robert Longo
Robert Longo's 17-foot steel, wax and wood sculpture (at the Petzel Gallery in New York) evokes Captain Ahab's sinking ship and "reflects a physical manifestation of American hubris." ("Untitled (the Pequod)" by Robert Longo; 2014. 207 x 192 x 12 inches)

David Carson
"I'm drawn to the unadroned, rough, simple image," says graphic designer David Carson, who provocatively paired close-up images of the Stars and Stripes with an old snapshot of his father, Robert, taken when he was a military test pilot. (David Carson)

Jean-Michel Basquiat
"Jean-Michel Basquiat always saw the flag as American art," says Alexis Adler, who lived with the graffitist-turned-art-world-sensation. Basquiat, who created this work around 1980, died in 1988 at 27. (Photo by adam reich / Alexis Adler archives)
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