Tag Archives: John Trumbull

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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Trumbull, Again: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery”

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

 

Courtesy of Alabama Live, news that the Birmingham Museum of Art will host a display of American art including the original 21-by-31-inch painting upon which John Trumbull based his titanic “Declaration of Independence” that hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The article contains a good summary of the painting’s patriotic mythology but also an analysis of  Trumbull’s technique. The smaller original painting pre-dated the 1817 colossus, which many art critics consider inferior to the smaller work. Still, the painting is a familiar icon and stunning achievement as anyone who has seen it at the U.S. Capitol can attest. The article also has a handy identification key so you can know “who’s who” in either painting.  The exhibit, which also includes more than 200 other examples of historic American art from the Yale University Art Gallery, is through January 10, 2010.

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Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence

At first glance, the article seems to be an exercise in the history of coincidences, even a gimmick to display the irony of common people sharing the names of uncommon men. The New York Times feature “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism” has presented the portraits of individuals who share the names of American presidents. The results are somewhat predictable: A retired Atlantic City firefighter who was the butt of jokes because his name is Richard Nixon, or the story of Ronald Reagan of Syracuse, New York, who loves the name his son hates. (In a spirit of bipartisanship, it should be noted a man named after John F. Kennedy concedes his name didn’t help his reputation with the ladies.)

However, one photo of a presidential namesake from the December 1 edition captures more than ironies although many are obvious. Thomas Jefferson, a combat veteran crippled by a stroke and troubled by his past substance abuse, appears in his wheelchair posed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. As you will recall, this was the home of the Continental Congress and the room famously portrayed in the beautiful (though highly stylized and very inaccurate) Jonathan Trumbull portrait showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The contemporary Mr. Jefferson, who is black, looks at the camera calmly, surrounded by the tables covered by green baize where his namesake presented the words “all men are created equal.”  In my opinion, the photo is electrifying.

Visual poetry, to be sure, full of things that are the staff of life at the Times: The contradictions of American democracy, the sufferings of various minorities, and the image of great places humbled by the presence of ordinary Americans. However, I suggest the photo captures an additional idea. The Declaration brought black Americans into that room in 1776, into the very presence of those who forged the identity of the United States and made it a nation. The escape from slavery would not be found in the U.S. Constitution, a document of compromise that would not even grant full humanity to slaves (witness the famous Federal Ratio), or in the Bill of Rights (where slaves, as chattel property, belonged to their masters with the full force of Amendment 5 and its promise that Americans would not be deprived of their property without due process or just compensation). It is no accident that the abolition movement quickly turned to the Declaration for its inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the Jefferson’s Rough Draught and its original anti-slavery clause that was struck from the final version of the Declaration by a vote of the men in that room. That, too, was another compromise in the name of colonial unity and state-making. In it, Jefferson spared no criticism of the institution in which he participated as he laid blame for the slave trade at the feet of George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Congress struck that section. Yet, it is too easy to speak of the contradictions and hypocrisy of that decision. They are there – but so is another section that exists in the Declaration’s final form.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Frederick Douglass

That is the section containing the political powder keg: “All men are created equal.” Jefferson and the Congress wrote that God gave humanity equal political rights. Arguments regarding what the Founder’s concept of “men” in the language of the 18th century and the political ideology of liberty abound, but the men in that room were intelligent individuals capable of understanding the door that they would open with that phrase. People outside of the room certainly understood the meaning. For example, as the nation moved forward both the Jeffersonians and the apologists for Jacksonian Democracy argued that they were the guardians of American liberty, which include the expansion of political rights. Abolitionists black and white seized the same ideas and ran toward the logical conclusion that America’s founding statement applied to all people in the United States. (Women, too, would argue for their political emancipation through suffrage and equal right using the rationale of the Declaration.) No wonder Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration … With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.”

I wish the contemporary Mr. Jefferson nothing but peace, hope, and a long life. I am glad that the other Mr. Jefferson gave us a road map that gives his namesake (and all of us) a fighting chance to find those things in the United States.

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Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), RIP: Father of the artist who painted “the class photo.”

  

Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

    Jonathan Trumbull, first governor of the state of Connecticut and Patriot leader, died on this day in 1785. The only royal governor to embrace the Patriot cause, he continued to serve as state governor after independence was declared. His daughter Mary was wife of William Williams, one of the Connecticut signers of the Declaration of Independence. However, Gov. Trumbull’s greatest contribution to the history of the Declaration was allowing a son to pursue a life as a painter: John Trumbull (1756-1843), famous for his heroic portrayal of the document’s introduction to the world.

            The younger Trumbull was a soldier during the Revolution and even served as an aide to Gen. George Washington. As an artist, he was trained by Benjamin West, one of the few American painters of the age who possessed a European reputation. Encouraged and admired by none other than Thomas Jefferson,

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

Trumbull in the 1780s began the paintings and engravings of significant historical events in United States history that he worked on sporadically for the remainder of his life.  His letters and autobiography make fascinating reading despite their sometime bitter tone when Trumbull bewailed the new nation’s lack of interest in supporting the arts.

            Though considered historically inaccurate in its portrayal, the John Trumbull portrait is by far the most iconic. (Even I yielded to the power of this specific image. A detail from the portrait is the banner of this blog.) The painting features the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin) standing in front of John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. The painting also includes portraits of 42 of the 56 signers, some of whom were not even present when the Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress. However, some of the likenesses in the painting are the only portraits available of certain American founders. The huge 12-by-18-foot canvas is one of four Trumbull works hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda that depict important historical events from the American Revolution.  In a smaller form as an engraving the painting appears on the back of the $2 bill.

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

            Some historians have jokingly called this portrait “the class photo” of the 2nd Continental Congress because of its high-toned neo-Classical manner and the artist’s effort to include in the painting nearly everyone who was anyone in the Patriot cause. Still, it is a beautiful work that can be admired simply as an image memorializing a transcendent moment in U.S. history. We should be grateful that the elder Trumbull did not succumb to his feelings about young John’s career choice. As one biographer wrote, “His father wanted him to pursue either the ministry or law, feeling that the manual crafts were beneath the family dignity.” Today, we remember the Trumbull family mostly for the accomplishments of its most gifted son, born of a dignified father who believed in the future of the United States even he if had qualms about art as a career for his child.

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