John Trumbull's 1817 portrait
The Declaration of Independence
Information and image from the Architect of the Capitol, Richmond Times Dispatch, July 4, 2016
The classic painting "Declaration of Independence" is often erroneously thought to depict the signing of the aforementioned document. Instead, it's the artist's conception of the moment on June 28, 1776, when the 5-member drafting committee- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin- presented their revolutionary document to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Six days later, on July 4, the document was adopted and, the following month, 56 congressional delegates signed it. The oil-on-canvas painting is 12 feet by 18 feet and has hung in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol since 1826. While 56 men signed the Declaration, only 47 are represented. Trumbull did not attempt a wholly historical depiction and excluded those for whom no authoritative image could be found. He also included five other patriots who did not sign.
Taken altogether, the painting shows 42 of the 56 signers, along with five extra men. It omits 14 signers. They are:
Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire Thomas Stone of Maryland
John Hart of New Jersey Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Virginia
John Morton of Pennsylvania Francis Lightfoot Lee of Virginia
James Smith of Pennsylvania Carter Braxton of Virginia
George Taylor of Pennsylvania John Penn of North Carolina
George Ross of Pennsylvania Button Gwinnett of Georgia
Caesar Rodney of Delaware Lyman Hall of Georgia
The five men that are included but were not signers are:
George Clinton of New York
Robert Livingston of New York
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania
Thomas Willing of Pennsylvania
Charles Thompson of Pennsylvania
John Trumbull (1756-1843) was the first American painter to produce a series of history paintings; they depict scenes of the Revolutionary War. John Trumbull, the son of a Connecticut lawyer, became governor of the colony. He was born June 6, 1756.
Upon traveling to London in 1780 to study with the renowned painter Benjamin West, in 1784, West proposed that Trumbull take over a project that West had started: a series of paintings on the American Revolution. The resulting paintings became Trumbell's best-known works. Trumbull viewed this role in this undertaking as that of a historian, "commemorating the great events of our country's revolution."
In 1786, Trumbull included this nonmilitary painting in his series designed to document the American war of independence. He underscored that in contrast to other nations the United States had its origins in a rational assertion of abstract principle rather than in the violence and caprice of monarchs. As usual he painstakingly sought to achieve authentic and realistic portraits of the figures in the painting, but he also departed from the historical record, taking liberties that heightened the dramatic effect of the painting and the symbolic importance of the event. The Declaration of Independence conflated into one day a whole series of events related to the drafting and approval of this document. The painting depicts not the signing of the Declaration but the presentation of the document to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, by the drafting committee. Trumbull placed the members of this committee, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, at the center of the scene to highlight their role in this event. He also included signers of the Declaration who had not actually been present on the day the document was signed. In fact, the signers were never assembled as a group in the way that Trumbull depicted them. Most of the delegates signed the Declaration of Independence on 2 August 1776, and other signatures were added until some time before the publication of the signed document on 19 January 1777.
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