Since its completion in 1818, John Trumbull’s “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” remains one of the most recognizable paintings among Americans. Commissioned by Congress with the intent of housing it in the United States Capitol, Trumbull took several creative liberties to represent one of the most significant events of the American Revolution and to pay honor to the founders who took part in the document’s signing.
The history of the painting really is quite significant. As an artist, soldier and diplomat, Trumbull took it upon himself to create a series of paintings depicting the founding of America. Although he hadn’t planned on painting the signing, it was after he spent time with Thomas Jefferson in France that he began to consider the scene at Jefferson’s insistence. Trumbull returned to America and began the long journey of travelling around the country in order to create sketches of every member of the Second Continental Congress in order to properly portray them in the painting. Of course, some of the signers had already died, and this required Trumbull to find other ways of obtaining their likeness, be it through an existing piece of art or a written description from a family member. Ultimately, only forty-two of the fifty-six signers were included in the painting.
On February 18, 1819, a letter signed by the Virginia delegation in Congress was sent to John Trumbull to demand “why he has excluded three of this Delegation from the painting made by order of Congress.” The three signers were Thomas Nelson, Francis L. Lee, and Carter Braxton. It wasn’t an unreasonable question to ask, particularly since Congress was paying Trumbull. However, a proof of the painting had been put on display for members to see and provide any input they deemed necessary. This period had been met with silence and Trumbull went on to finish the painting.
Trumbull did not take the demand lightly. The petition came off as an insult to all the work he had put into his paintings and the deep-seeded patriotism he had for the young nation. Without any hesitation, Trumbull immediately penned a response to the Virginian delegates to express his resentment towards such allegations:
I have received your note of this day, in which you ask me ‘why I have excluded &c’ I beg you to believe that it never entered my mind ‘to Exclude’ from the painting in question, any one of those eminent men who aided in establishing the independence of the U.S._ on the contrary I am bold to say that there exists not, and never did exist a painting, the authenticity of which was so carefully and laboriously aimed at as this_ I travelled from London to Paris, from Europe to America, from New Hampshire to South Carolina without patronage & without reward, in search of the resemblances of those venerable patriots [ . . . ]”
As to why the three Virginians were excluded from the painting? “The Three gentlemen of the Virginia delegation, whom you name, were dead, and I was not able to procure any portrait of them.” Having no means to procure their image, it seemed more reasonable to leave them out of the painting. No objections were made by their families or the members of congress, so it only seemed reasonable to keep them out of the final piece. Of course, Trumbull had a simple solution to the problem. “I will only add that as it is my wish to give to this work all the perfection in my power, I am ready to add the portraits of the Gentlemen in question, if you will have the goodness to procure for me authentic materials.”
Trumbull certainly had the benefit of knowing the painting had been approved by two of the most important men to take part in the Declaration’s creation. “I was expressly advised by Th. Jefferson, John Adams and others for whose opinions I had the highest respect_ to admit nothing ideal with this work_ I have entrained to obey them.” In the end, it is unknown how the Virginians responded to Trumbull’s feisty response. When the painting was completed in 1818, the three signers from Virginia remained absent from the group of founders. A key to the painting, which had been included with the painting, lists them as three of the fourteen singers who do not appear in the painting. It’s safe to assume the Virginians did not take up Trumbull’s request to procure the authentic materials in order for them to be added to the final painting.
* A clapback, on Twitter and other social media platforms, is the return fire for a criticism. For the evolution of the term, see Merriam-Webster’s What’s a ‘Clapback’?
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.