John Trumbull’s ‘The Declaration of Independence’

John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, 4th July, 1776, oil on canvas, 20 7/8 x 31 in. (53 x 78.7 cm), Yale University Art Gallery, 1786-1820.

John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence is an iconic image of American history and a rich example of a Bilderfahrzeug functioning in the context of nationhood. On the one hand, the image’s multiple instantiations are key to its wide transmission, existing as it does as three paintings by Trumbull and a number of especially mobile 19th century engravings after those paintings, to say nothing of its more recent dissemination by more modern means. On the other hand, the image’s intimate and direct connections to the historical personages that it depicts means that it has also long functioned to visually transmit a record of the American revolution with some authority, while simultaneously conjuring up that event for the historical imagination.  In this blog post I begin to explore the overlaps and entanglements of these two distinct registers of Trumbull’s image.

Originally begun as an oil painting in 1786 but, for a variety of circumstances, not finished for more than 30 years, The Declaration of Independence was a speculative venture for Trumbull that turned into his life’s great work. Trumbull came from a prominent New England political family that was deeply committed to the cause of the American revolution—his father was the Governor of Connecticut during the revolutionary war, the only colonial governor to side with the rebellion, and Trumbull and his two older brothers each served in the Continental army. Though Trumbull long struggled with his ambitions to become a painter, his family and military connections meant that he was especially well positioned to record the canonical events of the revolutionary war for posterity; Trumbull knew many of the signers of the Declaration personally—including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—and one of the reasons why the painting took so long to complete was because Trumbull agreed with those two “founding fathers” to depict the scene as faithfully as possible, including composing the likenesses of the Declaration’s 56 signers from life. Following through on this promise, naturally, was impossible, but this did not prevent Trumbull from pursuing the limit of this dream.

The fact that Trumbull actually solicited advice from Jefferson and Adams about the painting also speaks to the painting’s intention to transmit the message of the American revolution—whatever that might be—in visual form.  In this regard, it is especially interesting to note that the idea for the painting itself was not even Trumbull’s.  Trumbull inherited the general idea of a cycle of grand history paintings commemorating the most significant events of the revolution from Benjamin West, the royal painter of George III, who happened to be American, and who also happened to be Trumbull’s teacher and mentor.  West’s nationality and tacit political leanings seem to have encouraged him to conceive the project in the first place but his comfortable position as the king’s court painter—the very king whose army had lost the war for the American colonies—obviously complicated his ability to pursue the project himself.  When Trumbull took over the idea for the paintings from West, the cycle as a whole was to focus exclusively on military victories—for instance, the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown—but in the summer of 1786 the plan changed.  Upon visiting Jefferson in Paris and discussing the cycle of paintings in particular, the decision was made to include a painting of the Declaration of Independence itself, or, at least, a painting of the moment when the drafting committee of the Declaration presented its report to congress.  Scholars have reasonably concluded from this change of course that the idea to paint the Declaration was partially, if not significantly, Jefferson’s own.  

Interestingly enough, the mobility of the idea for the painting is mirrored in the physical mobility of the image itself.  Readers who have been to the US Capitol and seen the massive 12 by 18 foot composition may be surprised to know that the original painting only measures some 21 by 31 inches.  This small scale allowed Trumbull to travel with the painting so as to render many likenesses not only from life but also directly onto the original canvas; in the summer of 1787, for instance, he painted John Adams’s portrait for The Declaration while in London, and between 1789 and 1794 he travelled around the US and added 36 more portraits to the image. The more widely-known version of the painting in the US Capitol—which includes life-size figures—was not commissioned by the US government until 1817 and was not installed in Washington until 1826. And despite the monumental version’s scale, it is interesting to note that an echo of the mobile context of the original painting’s creation is also found in the larger canvas’s early years.  After completing the full-sized version in 1819, Trumbull put the heroic canvas on tour by organizing exhibitions of it in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on his way to installing it in the Capitol rotunda.  As it turned out, this tour of The Declaration of Independence was more successful than the more conventional means by which painters distributed and sold their work to a wider audience at the time: by turning their original paintings into engravings that were then sold under contractual arrangement in print shops around the world. Despite the fact that the first engraving of Trumbull’s painting was executed to an extremely high standard by one of the great artists of the next generation—Asher Durand—and despite the fact that Trumbull was able to legitimately claim that four US presidents had ordered copies of the print—Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Monroe each paid for copies in advance—hundreds of copies of the print remained unsold at Trumbull’s death in 1843. This relative failure of the image as a print in the early 19th century, however, did not ultimately stop engravings after the original painting from becoming the image’s most recognized form.  First during the American Civil War and then again during the bicentennial of the United States in 1976, engravings after Trumbull’s painting made their way onto US currency. Today an example of these engravings can be most readily found on the back of the two-dollar bill, making American money the fitting means for the ongoing dissemination of this national Bilderfahrzeug around the world.


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