From the Foundation Up: The Illustration by Bagram Ibatoulline
by Mary Brigid Barrett
• About the Illustration
• See and Read More
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
About the Illustration
Bagram Ibatoulline’s exquisite illustration of President George Washington looking out over the Potomac Valley is reminiscent of the romantic landscape paintings done by American artists in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The Hudson River school, a loosely associated group of landscape painters, best typifies the American Romantic Movement. These artists painted the countryside emphasizing its limitless vistas, idealizing the landscape and lighting; concentrating on the magnificence of nature rather than its potential destructive power. The romantic style is entirely appropriate for this depiction of George Washington, city plans in hand, looking out over the terrain. Washington was born and grew up along the Potomac River. He knew its rapids and its calm, its floods and its draughts; it was an integral part of who he was. In spite of that intimate knowledge, he did romanticize the Potomac and the land bordering its embankments. In this illustration Bagram Ibatoulline lets us see the countryside as George Washington saw it, and in doing so, allows us to see into Washington’s soul.
Fine artists are free to choose the shape and size of their paper or canvass. Book illustrators often do not have that freedom. They must work with the trim size of the book, with the shape and direction of the book, and they must understand how that shape can be used to enhance their illustration. For example, a drawing of skyscrapers would work well with a vertical rectangular page shape; it would be much harder to accomplish that illustration within a horizontal rectangular or square book page.
A double-page spread refers to two fully illustrated facing pages in a book. When an illustrator is given the task of designing for a double-page spread, he or she must be aware of the gutter—the space of inner margin where the two pages meet at the binding—and that there is a slight loss of picture space on either side of the gutter. Illustrators plan for that loss of space and do not include any important visual content in the “gutter” of the two-page spread. Book illustrators must also work to incorporate text, and sometimes titles, within their composition in a way that pleases the eye and works with the forward movement of the book. In the United States that movement is a left-to-right movement of the eye, for we read books left to right, as opposed to other cultures and countries that read books and turn pages in a right-to-left movement.
Bagram Ibatoulline’s double-page spread is beautifully painted and designed, taking full advantage of horizontal direction of the pages. Inspired by an eighteenth-century drawing of Georgetown and the Federal City by George Beck, engraved by T. Cartwright, and published in London by Atkins and Nightingale in 1801, Ibatoulline uses a limited palette of subtle greens, ochre, and sienna oils to warm the Potomac landscape. If you look at the original etching that inspired the illustration, you can see how Ibatoulline capitalized on the original drawing, cropping the space, bringing the viewer beyond the picture frame into the scene, making it all so much more immediate. He places Washington to the far left of the illustration, Washington’s light gray hair and peach complexion contrasting dramatically with the dark shades of the foliage behind him. Washington looks forward facing right, directing our eyes to the landscape, yet we are not looking over his shoulder; though he is commanding, he does not command us. Ibatoulline has invited us into the picture most engagingly, for he has placed the dirt road to the new Federal City at the bottom of the right side of the page–in a double-page spread the right page is naturally the page of dominant focus–leading us down the path into the hills and vales of the sun-drenched countryside. That dirt path, like the yellow brick road, leads us to Washington’s Emerald City.
See and Read More
To see the engraving that inspired Ibatoulline’s illustration on the Library of Congress website, click here.
To learn more about the Hudson River school and American romantic landscape paintings, go to:
- “The Making of the Hudson River School” on the Albany Institute of History & Art website.
- “Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford” on the National Gallery of Art website.
- Hudson River School Art Trail website: HudsonRiverSchool.org.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Do you think President Washington and the Congress made the right decision to locate our nation’s capitol in the Potomac Valley? Does their original reasoning still have import now? Explain your reasoning.
- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Pierre L’Enfant had many differences of opinions as to what the new capital of the United States should look like. But they all agreed that the visual image of the city was important for its symbolic meaning and because it would send a message to the rest of the world showing other countries who the United States was and what was important to its people. Do you agree? Can cities inspire or intimidate? Do certain kinds of architecture express power or security better than other styles of architecture? Can a capital city and its architecture convey to the world the essence of its country and its people?
- What early American political party best expresses your philosophy of government, the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans? Why? Taking your philosophy of government into consideration, what do you think our nation’s capital should look like?
- Do you think landscape paintings and illustrations should only express the beauty of a setting, or should they show every realistic detail, including litter and destruction?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Have your young people research and write the history of their home or school and its land. Have them find out if any other buildings, farms, or business existed previously on the lot. With permission, conduct your own mini-archeological dig. The records in your own town hall and historical society will be helpful for research. Also of help-Douglas L. Brownstone’s A Field Guide to America’s History, or a similar publication. And check out Archaeological.org.
- There are many historical figures who played a part in the creation of Washington D.C., our capital. They include: George Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Banneker, Daniel Carroll, James Hoban, William Thornton, and many more. Have students find out who all these “characters” were, what role they played in the development of the city, then have them write a poem about each character, writing first-person, in the voice of that character. Then the kids can share their poems informally or present them in a group dramatic reading.
- Your young people can design their own Federal City! Have the kids decide where in the country they think the capital should be located today. They can visit the library or go online to find maps of the geographic area where they would like to locate their new dream capital. Using L’Enfant’s and Thomas Jefferson’s city designs as a reference, have the kids map out their street plan for their dream capital complete with a house for the president, buildings for Congress and the Supreme Court, and all the parks, fountains, playgrounds, stores, and houses they desire!
- Look at a map of the United States and ask your children or students where they would locate the capital and have them discuss the underlying reasons for their locations. Then have them write a letter to their United States Senator or Congressman sharing their ideas, as well as citing the reasons why they think the capital should be moved to a particular location. They can choose to mail the letter, or keep it as a writing exercise.
- Accompany your children outside on a pleasant day and have them bring a small board to draw and paint on, and a backpack full of: watercolor paper, watercolor paints in a plastic or metal paint set, brushes, sponge and some paper towels, a pencil, a kneaded rubber eraser, a bottle full of clean water, a small plastic bowl and some masking tape. (Watercolor paper is available at your local arts and crafts store. Remember very few people know anything about arts supplies, so do not be afraid to ask for help, everyone does!) Find a beautiful vista, and have everyone try their hand at landscape painting. Have the kids sit down first and look and look and look. Have a discussion about the light and the color around them. Is a tree trunk brown, or is it really shades of gray? How many shades of green are the leaves? What direction is the light coming from? Where are the dark shadows? Have the children choose their perspective on the surrounding landscape and suggest that they lightly sketch out what they see first in pencil. When their sketch is complete, they can paint, and suggest they use the top of their paint box, or a small plate of plastic, or a plastic lid, as their palette to mix paints to get the shades of color they want.
Brown, Milton W. Brown. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting. Smithsonian Institute Press: Washington D.C., 1983
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington, the Indispensable Man. Little Brown and Company: New York, 1969, 1973, 1974
Greenberg, Allan. George Washington, Architect. Andreas Papadakis Publisher: London, 1999
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997
Ketchum, Richard M. The World of George Washington. American Heritage Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1974
Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson, a Life. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1993
Reps, John W. Washington on View: The Nation’s Capital Since 1790. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1991
Smithsonian Institution. Washington D.C.: A Smithsonian Book of the Nation’s Capital. Smithsonian Books: Washington D.C., 1992
©2016 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance