In a towering portrait by the artist Francisco Oller, President William McKinley glowers determinedly, his shoulders thrown back in a commanding posture. His right hand grasps a crumpled map of Puerto Rico unfurled just enough to see the date, July 25, 1898—the day United States troops invaded Spanish-occupied Puerto Rico.
The 25th president’s stern look is what greets visitors to the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions.” The show aims to shine a light on this overlooked but pivotal point in history when the United States emerged as a world power.
While most people might point to the years surrounding World War II as the decisive moment when the U.S. entered as a superpower on the global stage, that’s not entirely correct, says the museum’s Kate Clarke Lemay, historian and co-curator of the exhibition. “It was actually 1898,” she says.
That single year launched the United States on a path that would end with the annexation of Hawaii, intervention in Cuba, and the invasions of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam—profound geopolitical changes resulting from U.S. domination during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) and the Spanish-American War (April to August 1898), now often referred to as the War of 1898. The map of Puerto Rico in McKinley’s grasp is a symbol of this expansion of U.S. interests beyond North American shores. The map could be a stand-in for any of these dispersed island nations, as their destinies, says co-organizer Taína Caragol, “all lie in the hands of McKinley and the United States.”
Caragol, the museum’s curator of painting, sculpture and Latino art and history, and Lemay were diligent in representing this history from diverse viewpoints. Over a five-year research period, the pair, along with curatorial assistant in Latino art and history Carolina Maestre, selected and sleuthed out 94 objects for the show after making visits to 74 collections around the world.
The exhibition’s 54 portraits offer a cast of characters that includes American leaders like James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral George Dewey, alongside visages of dozens of other significant voices of the era, including the Cuban philosopher and writer José Martí, Guam’s leader and diplomat Father José Torres Palomo, and Hawaiʻi’s Queen Liliʻuokalani. A host of worldwide scholars weigh in on recordings accessed via QR codes. Tory Laitila, a curator of textiles and historic arts of Hawaiʻi at the Honolulu Museum of Art, offers this analysis of the queen’s eight-foot-tall portrait:
She wears the symbols of Hawaiʻi translated into European honors. The Hawaiian Kingdom was quick to adapt and saw that other world powers had honor systems, and the kingdom developed its own to show that Hawaiʻi was on equal footing in this worldwide community of nations and monarchs.
“We are certainly not the experts—they are,” Lemay says. “We’re hoping to give a little conduit for their research.”
The trajectory of U.S. expansion begins decades before the War of 1898 during the colonial era. Settlers started venturing westward in a series of lengthy and violent conflicts with North Americans, seizing land through not only treaties, but also warfare and genocide that continued through the 19th century. Some 30 officers in the War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War cut their teeth in the American Indian Wars. “There’s a direct line,” Lemay says. “They learned how to subjugate people through the Indian Wars.”
The tragic explosion of the USS Maine, a Navy warship, famously became the prelude to the War of 1898. The ship, depicted in a painting by the artist Carlton Theodore Chapman, headed for Havana in January 1898 to protect U.S. citizens as civil unrest arose during the ongoing Cuban War of Independence against Spain. Just three weeks later, on February 15, a mysterious blast sank the ship, killing more than 260 U.S. sailors. While inquiries into the explosion could never conclusively determine the cause, sentiments about the Spanish were already low. Newspapers jumped to publish grabby headlines. “SPAIN GUILTY!” blazed across the front page of the New York Journal the following month.
“Imperialism [was] in the air,” Caragol says. “There’s this zeitgeist for expansion.” And the explosion of the Maine was the spark necessary to ignite the fires of war.
To the right of McKinley’s portrait hangs a somber oil painting by the Spanish artist Ildefonso Sanz y Doménech, depicting battleships under Dewey’s command in the Philippines on May 1, 1898. The artist was a medical officer aboard a Spanish cruiser who witnessed the battle. American flags wave overhead as the naval fleet heads to Manila Bay, to sink Spanish ships in the first battle—and decisive U.S. victory—of the war.
Americans' enthusiasm for expansion overseas was a sentiment not shared by everyone. Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker who would later become the second woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, argued that the U.S. should be a force for democracy. “National events determine our ideals, as much as our ideals determine national events,” she said. And imposing the U.S. government on others defied democratic ideals. Senator Benjamin Tillman, an architect of voter suppression laws during the Jim Crow era, voiced his racist fear that interracial mixing as a result of expansion overseas would “degrade the American Anglo-Saxon race,” Caragol says.
Both Addams’ and Tillman’s portraits hang in a section along with Moorfield Storey, the president of the Anti-Imperialist League, and Mark Twain. Their stories address the vigorous debates roiling the nation. Would overseas expansion turn the U.S. from a republic to an empire? “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land,” Twain wrote.
Many of these complex questions surrounding the War of 1898 remain unanswered to this day, Lemay says.
Each section of the exhibition is dedicated to the battles of a different island or archipelago, which are interspersed with other curiosities like books, magazine cartoons, games or maps that circulated throughout the U.S. during the wars. The pairings emphasize the cognitive dissonance between the brutal realities of war and the American propaganda that shaped citizens’ views.
One section of the exhibition highlights a board game with small pieces shaped like naval cruisers. Adults and kids alike could spin a dial to move their pieces across the board, landing in Cuba, Puerto Rico or the Philippines to plant a flag. This game is just one example of war-mongering or patriotic-themed items that flooded consumer markets and sugarcoated the brutalities of war with an air of fun and adventure. “You throw the dice and you hold the future of these lands in your hand,” Caragol says.
Another common commercialization of war were the maps of the overseas lands where battles raged. Often wildly out of scale, they cluster the embattled islands and archipelagos to make them appear as if they sat just off the coast of the U.S. The goal of these maps was to help make consumers in the States aware of the overseas locales. But their size and position didn’t seem to matter to the mapmakers, Caragol explains. “There’s this disregard, frankly,” she says, and Lemay adds, “for the realities of the people who live there, for the realities of their location.”
This disregard for the people of these islands persisted through the end of the wars and is highlighted in the exhibition by a small, grainy and slightly out of focus black-and-white photograph depicting more than a dozen commissioners from Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. These were individuals who were left out of the negotiations that determined the future of their lands.
On December 10, 1898, representatives from Spain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the War of 1898. The group of commissioners depicted in the photo traveled to Washington, D.C. in late January or February, before the Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris, to demand inclusion in the process. Yet McKinley ignored their requests, and the group is often overlooked in historical accounts. This image has long been buried in the Library of Congress, but curatorial assistant Maestre went on a mission to dig it up for the exhibition.
Standing in stark contrast to this small, grainy image is a nearly seven-foot-wide oil painting by French artist Thèobald Chartran, which currently hangs in White House’s Treaty Room. The painting depicts McKinley looking on as the French ambassador to the U.S., standing in on Spain’s behalf, signs the Treaty of Paris surrounded by U.S. officials. The difference between the two makes a strong statement about collective memory, Lemay says. “What makes it into the White House, and what gets lost in the Library of Congress?”
Still, the grand portrait of Hawaiʻi’s Queen Liliʻuokalani, which she purchased as a declarative statement of her sovereignty, is a key example of how the people of the embattled islands fought to be seen and heard. “They were not going to be silenced,” Lemay says.
Caragol and Lemay hope that the exhibition will nudge visitors to ask more questions about how this pivotal period is both remembered and overlooked. “These are really hard truths, they’re hard histories that are easy to elide,” Lemay says. “We would like people to look at them.”
“1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through February 25, 2024.
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