Saturday, June 26, 2010

Yankee Doodle Went To Town, And That Town Was Princeton

I just returned from a whirlwind trip back east with a few friends of mine. We did all the normal fun stuff that regular people enjoy, but there always comes a point in these trips where I force some artsy-smartsy junk down my friends' throats. This time, instead of a chorus of groans, my suggestion was met with cheers and I was lauded as a genius. I suspect it was because, this time, the art was hanging above a bar in a 250-year old tavern.

In Princeton, New Jersey (where I spent many a dreamy, childhood Autumn) there's a beautiful establishment known as the Nassau Inn. And in the belly of this inn is a pub known as the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. It's one of those great, dark taverns with solid oak tables and warm amber lighting where the beer flows freely and the bartender hates me because I only drink water. Hearty food and friendly service. But the reason I keep going back is the Norman Rockwell mural that hangs above the bar.

Rockwell painted his 13-foot Yankee Doodle Dandy mural for the Nassau Inn in 1937. It's a beautiful piece of work and, at that size, just stunning to take in all at once. Most Rockwells I see are reprinted in books, so the 13-foot mural never ceases to amaze me. Though the colors appear subdued at first, upon close inspection there's a richness and warmth to the oils that make it come alive.

Note Rockwell's use of the cooler, green coat on Yankee Doodle to help him stand out from the warm browns and reds of his surroundings. To further underscore the focal point of the painting, Rockwell's flawless composition leads the viewer directly to the ridiculed colonist whether your eye is traveling from right to left, or left to right. And, of course, the detail of the piece is amazing. You might not be able to see it in this image, but each cobblestone is illustrated in painstaking detail, with special attention having been paid to texture and color variegation. The figures, needless to say, are classic Rockwell -- each face expertly exaggerated to the brink of caricature, but maintaining that essence of realism that makes you feel you've seen these people before in your own home town. Beautiful work.

And, if you're at all familiar with the song, Yankee Doodle Dandy, you can see the mural creates a visual retelling of the song's lyrics. Moreover, the laughing redcoats mocking the yank give voice to the history behind the song (originally penned by the British as an insult to the colonial troops, the tune was eventually embraced by the American colonists and sung as a patriotic anthem). If you ever get a chance to see it in person, stop in at the tavern, sit by the giant stone fireplace, order up a flagon of whatever warms your belly, and take a gander at a real piece of American history. -v

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