|John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence|
Washington, DC, U.S. Capitol Building,
Trumbull was commissioned to paint a series of large paintings for the newly built U.S. Capitol Building in 1817. The first of these was “The Declaration of Independence”. You can read about the details of the painting on the U.S. Capitol website.1
The composition was based on a smaller version of the painting that Trumbull had done in 1786 while resident in Paris, where he had assistance from Thomas Jefferson himself in planning it. Prior to this Trumbull had served in the Revolutionary army and had studied in London (under the American expatriate artist Benjamin West) and in Paris. And this is where the ‘connections’ come in.
John Singleton Copley, Collapse of the Earl of Chatham
London, Tate Gallery
|Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Tennis Court|
Versailles, Musee Nationale
Trumbull’s composition clearly derives from the western European tradition of ‘history painting’. Its immediate antecedents are such paintings as “The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham” by his fellow American abroad, John Singleton Copley, and, above all, the contemporary draft of “The Oath of the Tennis Court” by Jacques-Louis David.
|Rembrandt, The Night Watch|
And these paintings themselves trace back to Renaissance works such as Raphael’s “School of Athens” and Ghirlandaio’s “Zechariah Confirming the Name of John the Baptist”.
These paintings in turn eventually trace back through time to the great narrative mosaics of the Roman Empire.
Alexander and Darius
Roman, 1st Century BC
|Ulysses and the Sirens|
Roman, 3rd Century AD
Tunis, Bardo Museum
The process by which these Roman works became those of Copley, David and Trumbull lies in the Christian connection. For, as Christianity became accepted after its recognition by Constantine it moved into larger spaces than the house churches and catacombs of the periods of persecution.
|Christ in Majesty|
Roman Apse Mosaic, 4th Century AD
Rome, Santa Pudenziana
Roman Nave Mosaic, 5th Century
Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore
and Santa Maria Maggiore.
These first narratives are set, like their non-Christian contemporary images, in a kind of eternal nowhere, nowhen. But, as Christianity took hold in Europe and, especially following the decline in literacy that resulted in the aftermath of the barbarian invasions, the desire to describe the actual settings of Biblical events as an aid to evangelization and teaching took hold. Especially after the development of perspective in the fifteenth century, it became more and more possible for artists to create a realistic image of the settings of Biblical stories and, eventually, for historical, non-Biblical subjects.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel
Dieric Bouts the Elder, The Last Supper