Chapter 2. Cultural memories

Model of Aleut kayak with priest, by Sergie Sovoroff, Nikolski, Alaska

Aleut baidarka

Aleuts made models of boats accurate to every string and stick. The originals were both utilitarian and symbols of devotion. Because they could save lives, they were objects of devotion. They could float so close to reality that Mother Water and Master Otter would protect them as if they were one of their own. The full-size boats were all that, but the models were works of art. They also served as blueprints, connecting the future and the past.

The Birth of Aphrodite (Venus), c. 1484–1486, by Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Aphrodite

Sondro Botticelli painted the individual hairs of the goddess of his dreams, complete as the flow of the whole, delicate and poised as a human woman could never be. He painted the whites of her eyes a seafoam green to match her golden hair.

Wild Turkey, from The Birds of America, by John James Audubon

The Birds of America

John James Audubon combined his loves of art and ornithology and published the finest work of North American birds, the greatest book of aquatints ever produced, depicting over 435 species, including species that are now extinct— the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck, the great auk, the pinnated grouse, and the Eskimo curlew.

Boatmen on the Missouri, by George Caleb Bingham, 1846. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Boatmen on the Missouri

Three men on a flatboat drift on the hazy Missouri with a load of wood to sell at the next riverboat town. Hardly a living for a decent young man, the hard work, the stench of other men, the long days and nights. In the distance a riverboat steams off, accommodating those who can pay for their passage, aware or unaware of the river’s depths and shallows.

American Gothic, by Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothic

Farmer with pitchfork and daughter pose before a house whose architectural style gives this work its name. Grant Wood composed this nostalgic and costumed image of rural Americana as an appreciation, not a caricature. The father is grim, the daughter unhappy. She averts her eyes from us as if to suggest a secret we might be missing.

Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper, 1942


They play their anonymous roles as rapacious cons and dolls. In the cold night, city streets are bare, except here’s a coffeeshop where they pause unaware they have become caricatures of themselves.