John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence
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.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 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
Versailles, Musee Nationale
Poussin, Sacrament of Marriage
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland
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”.
|Ulysses and the Sirens|
Roman, 3rd Century AD
Tunis, Bardo Museum