Arthur Szyk immigrated to the United States in 1940 and became a naturalized citizen in 1948. Yet his admiration for America and its ideals was evident years earlier.
Before he even visited the United States, the artist spent two years researching and creating the series Washington and His Times (image on left). One of his largest and most ambitious portfolio works, it included 38 paintings highlighting heroes and battles of the American Revolution. (It was published as a set of fine art prints in Vienna in 1932.) In 1933, Szyk traveled to America for an exhibition of the original art of Washington and His Times (plus other works) at the Library of Congress. In honor of his artistic achievement, the U.S. Congress presented him with the George Washington Bicentennial Medal. Soon thereafter President Ignacy Mościcki of Poland purchased Washington and His Times and presented it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The series hung prominently in the White House until 1941.
In anticipation of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, Szyk painted another large series, The Glorious Days of the Polish-American Fraternity (image at right). The illuminated miniatures feature Polish-born figures from American history, including the Revolutionary War heroes Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Kazimierz Pułaski. The original art hung in the Polish Pavilion at the World’s Fair and was reproduced on postcards printed in Kraków.
By 1940 Szyk had relocated to the United States with his family to bring the war in Europe to the attention of the American public. Though he focused on anti-Nazi propaganda, the artist found time for patriotic projects such as a rendering of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (New York, 1942) and an illumination of “Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” (New York, 1945), which was reproduced on a billboard in Times Square.
Post-war Szyk delved deeper in Americana, illuminating the “Visual History of the United States of America” (New York, 1945), the “Bill of Rights” (New Canaan, 1949), and the “Four Freedoms Prayer” (New Canaan, 1949). Perhaps the most impressive of his works from this period is the illuminated “Declaration of Independence of the United States of America” (New Canaan, 1950), which now resides in the collection of the Library of Congress. The painting — probably the largest of Szyk’s career — was dedicated in a festive public ceremony in his adopted hometown of New Canaan, Connecticut, on July 4, 1950.
One of the last works before Szyk’s death was the striking “Thomas Jefferson’s Oath” (New Canaan, 1951). In beautiful calligraphy Szyk traced the words that might as well have been his own mission statement: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”