"We Wanted the Project Done In the Spirit of American Independence": Bicentennial Memory in the Kent Portfolio


In 1975-1976, Lorillard Company, a major tobacco corporation, commissioned a set of prints by noted American artists to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States' Declaration of Independence. Artists from Alex Katz to Ed Ruscha to Red Grooms created works that celebrated various aspects of American history. One hundred and twenty-five sets of these prints were created, and now reside in prominent museum collections across the country.

In his introductory essay in the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio's catalogue, John I. H. Baur writes: 

Most of the other [artists] see American history through their own painful understanding of how elusive freedom has been for ethnic minorities, women, and immigrants, and how difficult the fight for independence was, and is, in these areas. So Jacob Lawrence chooses to celebrate the freedom to vote as the milestone in Black liberation, while Marisol portrays Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton "because of their leadership in the struggle for women's rights," and, she adds, "because I like their faces--strong, determined, with very intense eyes."

This portfolio was no mere artistic endeavor. As reported in the New York Times, Lorillard Company's arts and design consultant considered it a "chance [for the company] to build up its own image at the same time [as supporting the arts].” This mindset was perfectly in line with the commercialization of the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, when you could buy anything from 1776-themed billiard balls to Jim Beam whiskey honoring Crispus Attucks. The People's Bicentennial Commission, a leftist group, referred to it as the "Buycentennial Sellabration," protesting the monetization of this historic observance.

When considering the visual techniques used by Marisol and Jacob Lawrence in their respective images, Women's Equality and The 1920's... The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, we can observe a positive representation, similar to Howard Pyle's, of what were much-contested struggles for the ballot. There is also no hint of the turmoil that engulfed the debate over the meaning and presentation of the Bicentennial Celebration.