Trumbull’s Klutzy Triumph

Trumbull: The Declaration of Independence

by Irma B. Jaffe
Viking, 124 pp., $10.00

John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution

by Irma B. Jaffe
Little, Brown/New York Graphic Society, 346 pp., $29.50

Paul Revere’s Boston: 1735-1818 Graphic Society

by Walter M. Whitehill
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, distributed by Little, Brown/New York, 236 pp., $29.50

Maryland Heritage

edited by John B. Boles
Maryland Historical Society, 252 pp., $7.50 (paper)

French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution

Wayne State University Press, 712 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The painting executed by col. Trumbull, representing the Congress at the declaration of independence, will, I fear, have a tendency to obscure the history of the event which it is designed to commemorate.

—Samuel Wells, 1819

Richard Steele, in the first year of the eighteenth century, said the only way to judge heroes was from “the manner of their dying”:

For in those last minutes, the soul and body both collect all their forces, either bravely to oppose the enemy, or gracefully receive the conqueror, Death. [The Christian Hero]

Even painters who could not have read that text seem to have marched to its order. Guérin’s picture of Cato tearing out his own entrails looks almost like an illustration for Steele’s passage on Cato. That was one of the pictures to be seen at the Metropolitan Museum’s great exhibit of French paintings last summer, which seemed at times to be a collection of advertisements for Death (see pp. 51, 54, 69, 78, 80, 82, 83, 88, 90, 91, 93, 110, 111, 144, 189, 200, 234, 256 of the valuable catalogue). The salons committed, annually, a slaughter of the eminents—Brutus, Socrates, Lucretia. Yet all the dying was decorous. Classical figures did not wait for midnight, like romantics; they could cease upon the midday with no pain—in the calm impiety of a mimicked “Pietà.” Life was all a matter of arranging one’s epitaph.

When Benjamin West launched American painting (typically, abroad) with his Death of Wolfe, he stole a march on Europe, by “outdying” it. This was, in the realm of art, the first American Revolution—one supported by King George. The commonplace of art historians is that West first shocked English critics, and then won them over, by painting a heroic scene in modern (rather than classical) costume. Certainly there are contemporary quotations to support that view. Nonetheless it is an odd one, since other paintings had shown heroes in contemporary military dress—including three earlier ones of this very scene. And military dress is, after all, highly ceremonial. Even when Copley repeated the American triumph, with his Death of the Earl of Chatham, he put the Lords in their ceremonial dress, not worn on the day Chatham addressed them.

Only when John Trumbull began his Declaration of Independence, in 1787, did the real bourgeoisification of heroism take place. These were men in everyday clothes—the five leading figures even lack wigs or powder for their hair. This is the real point of John Randolph’s famous gibe that Trumbull’s Declaration is a “shin piece.” Most commentators think that refers to the number of shins displayed, and Irma Jaffe, in John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution, therefore calls the comment unjust: most of the forty-seven figures have their legs hidden. But Randolph was a crusty survivor of the eighteenth century, and he must have been mocking the gaiters of John Adams, whose calves twinkle with a self-satisfaction to equal Mr. Pickwick’s. The …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.