Friday, June 6, 2008

Bicentennial Man

I read history voraciously as a kid. Growing up in Philadelphia, you couldn’t avoid all the colonial history. When the Bicentennial came around, I was one happy nine-year-old nerd, basking in all the patriotic nostalgia. I’ve worked my entire adult life just a block away from Independence Hall. Before September 11th, I would cut through the historic park area and actually walk through the opening of Independence Hall on my way to work. I liked to think I was walking on the same stones as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and all the others. No other artist pictured the American Revolutionary War for me like John Trumbull, painter of the iconic Declaration of Independence (above, from 1819). Born June 6, 1756, Trumbull actually lost the use of one eye as a child, but that never took away from the meticulous majesty of his works. The relentless realism of the multiple portraits of his Declaration of Independence somehow doesn’t seem out of place with the false drama of Jefferson delivering the document to John Hancock for his, well, “John Hancock.” Most experts agree that it didn’t happen that way, but we all want to believe that it did.

Trumbull knew this history first hand, fighting at the Battle of Bunker Hill, serving as second aide to General Washington himself, and later actually being taken prisoner in England when Major John André was captured as a spy. Trumbull’s Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (above) vividly sets the scene of the decisive battle that essentially ended the American Revolutionary War. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read cataloguing all the historical inaccuracies in this picture, but somehow I can still hear “The World Turned Upside Down” being played when I look at it. It’s really amazing how dramatic these static images can be. Trumbull puts almost no sense of movement into these paintings, but we Americans have come to accept this statue-like quality in our Founding Fathers.

No Founding Father seems more statuesque than George Washington. In General George Washington Resigning his Commission (above, from 1824), Trumbull depicts Washington at his most humble, self-effacing moment, when he could have forcefully taken over the new nation as the leader of the military but instead chose to resign his commission and allow the peaceful building of power begin, which, of course, ended with him as the first president. Even at this moment of personal humility, Washington seems godlike, the servant of his country who paradoxically excels all others in grandeur, like the suffering servant Christ himself. Washington very self-consciously sculpted the public persona we still know today. Trumbull, once Washington’s aide, certainly knew that and put much of that persona into this painting. If history is written by the winners, it’s painted by them, too. John Trumbull served his country well in creating images that helped develop a national mythology that provided Americans with something to believe in when they had little more than a dream of democracy.

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