Tag Archives: art history of the American Revolution

Drafting the Declaration of Independence

cropped-trumbull-large2.jpgThe Web site PortRevolt, which is dedicated to displaying art related to the American Revolution, has a brief history of the origins of the Declaration of Independence. It is readable and accurate, well worth the time for a Web visit that will combine history with the chance to view some of the most significant art associated with the Founding Period or portraying that period. As I wrote in an earlier post, PortRevolt is a valuable resource on the Web because of its emphasis on iconography, the systematic study and interpretation of paintings, drawings, and other portrayals of people and events to understand the past.

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Is This Thomas Jefferson? Scholars Claim An Oil Painting Might Be the Earliest Portrait of the Declaration’s Author

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

A 1785 oil painting by the French artist Nicolas Delapierre showing a gentleman seated at a desk and beginning to write on a sheet of paper might be the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted while the author of the Declaration of Independence was the United States’s minister to France.

O. Roy Chalk, who also purchased the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson now at Monticello, owned the painting for more than 41 years. The entrepreneur was an enthusiastic art collector who used his considerable fortune earned from interests in real estate, airlines, bus companies, newspapers and a rail line that hauled bananas in Central America to purchase works of art by notable works by Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt, among others. Chalk died in 1995.

Omnis, Inc., a Virginia consulting firm of  researchers, is examining the painting in an effort to authenticate who appears in the portrait. The painting portrays an unidentified eighteenth-century gentleman seated at a desk, cravat undone, and putting quill pen to paper. He is holding a copy of a book titled De la Caisse d’Escompte, written by the French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, several years before Mirabeau achieved prominence as a leading figure in the French Revolution. The book sharply criticizes methods of financial speculation popular in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of Jefferson’s economic ideals were influenced by Mirabeau,  and echoes of the French commentator’s critiques color Jefferson’s distaste for “stock -jobbers,” the National Bank, and aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s financial plans during the early Federal period.

The researchers established a Web site to release information about the painting, describe current research regarding its subject, and solicit additional information from the public. The Web site has a page called “Jefferson Connections” that offers tantalizing details such as similarities of facial features in the portrait and circumstantial historical evidence that indicates the painting could be a portrait commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Particularly fascinating is the fact that the painting is similar to composition to a mirror image portrait of John Adams, Jefferson’s close friend, painted by Mather Brown. According to the Web site, unless the parallels in these two portraits are mere coincidences it appears that Brown had access to the 1785 Delapierre portrait in London when he painted the Adams portrait there in 1788.

The site also urges any readers with relevant information about the Delapierre painting to contact the researchers.

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A Portrait of the Revolution

Art history is not my strong suit, although I have possessed a love of fine art since my youth. I was fortunate enough to grow up in San Diego, Calif., a cultured city that is too often noted only for surfing and the U.S. Navy. In Balboa Park is the Timken Museum of Art, a gem of a smaller museum whose collection includes John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage (1771), a portrait of the British general’s wife that was among the influences that prompted my interest in Revolutionary America. (Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to persuading a budding historian to become one of Clio’s sons.)

However, I acknowledge the importance of iconography, the systematic study and interpretation of paintings, drawings, and other portrayals of people and events, as an important tool used by historians to understand the past. There is also the intrinsic worth of the art in terms of its beauty or the uniqueness of the portrayal. How an event is portrayed says more than just the event itself — the wildly inaccurate but visually stunning Trumbull portrayal of the Declaration of Independence‘s signing that serves as the masthead of my blog is just one example of the celebratory “veneration of the Founders” that permeated early 19th century art and histories the Revolution. Look at a work of art and you will often look into a time machine that tells you about the artist’s time and place in history.

A wonderful on-line collection of art associated with the American Revolution is the Web site Portraits in Revolution (or PortRevolt, the short form of the name). The work put into the site, which is attractive and well-designed, is impressive enough. However, along with a rich collection of images there are links to various primary documents, advice on how to research topics in the history of the American Revolution, quotes from individuals from the period and historians who have written about the Revolution,  and a blog with historical commentary by the Webmaster. (At this point, the only identity that I can determine for the site’s author and designer is “JDN.” I welcome any hints regarding who he or she is. An e-mailed query to the site from me is also on its way.) I bookmarked the site and I recommend that anyone interested in U.S. history do the same.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians