Sidney Hart, M.A. ’69, Ph.D. ’73, recalls that when history professor George Billias perceived that something wasn’t quite right, the pitch of his voice would rise as he delivered a proposed solution.
So it was when Hart was writing his doctoral dissertation dealing with themes about American nationalism, he heard that familiar pitch. Hart planned to conclude his thesis in the year 1810, but Billias, his adviser, suggested he extend the timeline to include a chapter about the War of 1812.
“By this point my time, money and energy were running out,” Hart remembers. “If I included a chapter about the war, there was no way I could have finished the thesis that year. Professor Billias graciously recognized that.”
More than 40 years later, Hart has resurrected the war’s theme in a big way. As senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, Hart is the curator of a new exhibition called “1812: A Nation Emerges,” which includes memorable portraits, paintings and objects that capture a war one historian described as “the second American Revolution.”
The exhibition, which opened June 15 and runs through January 27, 2013, explores most of the war’s influential figures, including President James Madison, First Lady Dolley Madison, General Andrew Jackson, Congressman Henry Clay, and the Indian leader Tecumseh. According to the description on the Smithsonian’s website, “The epic battles and the aftermath known as ‘the era of good feelings’ are central elements of this story, linked by the biographies of the extraordinary and colorful leaders whose lives shaped its direction.”
The idea of tying an exhibition to the war’s bicentennial anniversary began percolating four years ago, Hart noted. Soon, he and assistant curator Rachael Penman launched a search to locate pieces for the exhibition, working with museums, historical societies, libraries, auction houses and collectors to track down the works, many of them residing with private owners. In one case, they secured portraits of British officers who fought and died in the war. The portraits, owned by the officers’ descendants, were located in castles in Northern Ireland and hadn’t been viewed publicly for two centuries.
“This was a golden age of Anglo-American portraiture, and we sought the best contemporary life paintings,” says Hart. Requesting the owners to loan out these rare works was made much easier when backed by the esteemed reputation of the organization doing the asking. “You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not you they’re responding to. It’s the Smithsonian.”
One piece on display — a red-velvet dress worn by Dolley Madison — brings with it a dose of mystery and drama. When the British invaded Washington, Madison had only minutes to escape the White House, Hart says. She saved a few precious items: the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, most of the White House silver, and the red-velvet curtains that hung in the drawing room. Some authorities believe Dolley later used the curtain fabric to create the dress, which she kept for the rest of her life.
“The dress is old and not in good condition,” Hart says, noting that fabrics often are not loaned for display because of their delicate condition. “This dress will probably never be on view again.”
Hart’s path to the Smithsonian cut directly through Clark University, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history. He came to Worcester after doing his undergraduate work at Long Island University, driven by the prospect of studying with Billias — a friend of one of his LIU professors — and access to the American Antiquarian Society’s vast archives.
Like many in his field, Hart’s goal was to teach at a university, but the job market was poor and academic positions were few. He credits timing and luck for landing a position at the National Portrait Gallery in 1977. He’s been with the gallery ever since.
“The education I received at Clark served me exceedingly well. There’s no question about it, I’ve been tremendously fortunate.”
– Sidney Hart
Hart has remained close with Billias, and visited his former professor in Worcester in April when Hart traveled to Boston to speak at the USS Constitution Museum.
“He is a treasure, in human as well as scholarly terms,” he says.
The Smithsonian exhibition has allowed Sidney Hart to tie up a 40-year-old loose end dating back to his mentor’s recommendation about concluding his thesis with the War of 1812. A few months ago, Hart sent Professor Billias the catalogue describing the upcoming bicentennial exhibition with a note that read, “Consider this the last chapter.”
“He read the catalogue and asked me a series of questions — his knowledge of early American history is extraordinary. Fortunately I passed the test.”