Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day Connections

John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence
American, 1817-1819
Washington, DC, U.S. Capitol Building,

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s the BBC produced a series of TV programs on the history of science called “Connections”. The premise of the program, presented by James Burke, was that there were sometimes surprising connections that lead from one new idea or process to another in the development of science. The shows were as much fun as they were instructive. And, thinking about the painting by John Trumbull of “The Declaration of Independence” reminded me of them because I can make some connections of my own from it.

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.

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
American, 1779-1780
London, Tate Britain

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.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Tennis Court
French, 1790
Versailles, Musee Nationale
With their clearly constructed interior space and important figures in the center of the composition, these paintings trace back to such 17th-century paintings as “The Sacrament of Marriage” by Nicholas Poussin and “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt.

Poussin, Sacrament of Marriage
French, 1647
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland

Rembrandt, The Night Watch
Dutch, 1642
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

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”.

Raphael, School of Athens
Italian, 1509-1510
Vatican, Apostolic Palace, Stanza dellla Segnatura

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Zechariah Confirming the Name
of John the Baptist
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

These paintings in turn eventually trace back through time to the great narrative mosaics of the Roman Empire. 

Among these are “The Alexander Mosaic” from Pompei and the “Voyage of Ulysses” from Tunisia.

Alexander and Darius
Roman, 1st Century BC

Ulysses and the Sirens
Roman, 3rd Century AD
Tunis, Bardo Museum

These differ from the productions of other ancient cultures such as Egypt and Mesopotamia which do not include narrative scenes.  However, like these earlier cultures they are set in an eternal anywhere and any when.

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.

It was mosaic narratives that first decorated these spaces, such as at the Roman churches of Santa Pudenziana and Santa Maria Maggiore.

Christ in Majesty
Roman Apse Mosaic, 4th Century AD
Rome, Santa Pudenziana
Joshua at Jericho
Roman, 432-440
Rome, Basilica of 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
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Dieric Bouts the Elder, The Last Supper
Flemish, 1464-1467
Leuven, Sint-Pieterskerk
So, as with much of western European and American civilization, the secular world owes much to the Christianity that has been its religious and cultural ground.

© M. Duffy, 2011