Early in his career, David Bjelajac, chair of the fine arts and art history department at George Washington University, spent a lot of time studying the life and work of painter Washington Allston (1779-1843). Bjelajac (pronounced be-logic), who would eventually write two books about Allston, discovered that the Harvard graduate had been an active member of Phi Beta Kappa, which had close ties to the Masonic movement. “As a spinoff, I began researching Freemasonry,” Bjelajac says. “I discovered that a good many American artists were Freemasons.” Among them, he lists Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt, as well as such 20th-century artists as Grant Wood, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

Bjelajac’s research into the Masonic influence on American art undergirds his recently published book, American Art: A Cultural History (Abrams). Bjelajac says that he wanted his 416-page volume to be different from other art-survey textbooks. “I did not want to write an evolutionary history of ‘isms’—one style of painting after another. What I tried to do was interpret the artwork from the perspective of the contemporaries who were living when the work was being produced. It’s not so much about the production of art as it is the consumption.”

Though he asserts that Freemasonry is not the “master key to understanding American art,” he does argue that during America’s pre- and post-Revolutionary eras, Freemasons helped establish and spread a visual vocabulary. In so doing, they countered the then-dominant Protestant impulse to dismiss art as decadent and unnecessary. “Freemasonry came out of the Enlightenment; it was a way to find a more universal religious truth,” Bjelajac says. “Masons saw the study of nature—from both the scientific and the artistic perspectives—as a way to know God.”

The Masons were so influential, Bjelajac says, that their visual language underlaid much of American art and architecture. To the Freemasons, pyramids, classical columns, and female personifications such as Faith, Hope, and Charity all possessed symbolic meaning—and all seeped into American art through their use by Masonic (and even non-Masonic) artists. To be sure, though, the movement’s influence ebbed and flowed. Beginning in 1826, Freemasonry retreated amid virulent populist attacks; it recovered about the time of the Civil War, before sliding into increasing irrelevance during the 20th century.

With the development of modernism, self-styled artistic visionaries usually eschewed the formal structures of Freemasonry. Still, the legacy of the Masons is with us—nowhere more so than in Washington, where the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and other major structures were designed and built by Freemasons. Even Bjelajac’s employer, George Washington University, is named after a Freemason and has employed a steady stream of Masons in top positions over the years—a rather delicious irony to Bjelajac.

Bjelajac, 50, expresses deep appreciation for the Masonic officials who aided him in his research. He himself, though, is not a Freemason. “Once, I was asked if I wanted to join,” he says, “and I declined, because you have to believe in a God. I’m not a religious person, even though I’m deeply interested in how much art is tied to religion.” — Louis Jacobson