“Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes”
by Paul Staiti
400 pp., Bloomsbury Press
Reviewed by Alex Nyerges, Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
September 1781 — Loyalists broke into the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and slashed the Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington. It was an act of desperation and frustration by Colonists still loyal to King George III who sensed the unthinkable was near — an American victory in the battle for independence. A month later, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and the war was all but over.
The attack on the portrait of the Revolution’s heroic leader provides a dramatic beginning to Paul Staiti’s gripping book on the five most important artists whose work provides us the visual legacy of the men and events that shaped this young country.
In the succinct and well-written chapters, Staiti weaves a fascinating tale that begins with the Peale portrait, commissioned in 1779 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, that colony’s governing body, and ends with the bivouacking of the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol beneath John Trumbull’s four massive paintings telling the story of the Revolution during the Civil War.
Tracing the work and lives of five painters — Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart — the author provides us with a complete visual history of the Revolution and its leaders.
Whether art historian, historian, or merely a student of the early days of our nation, it is a fascinating tale, well told. The book is an engaging and unique history of the Revolution, retelling episodes of its nascent beginnings to its glorious climax in a string of vignettes and stories that provide “color” to a history that is often only seen through the perspective of the military or politics. The story of these artists and their art brings real life to this history.
Charles Willson Peale, the son of a convicted felon, began his career as a saddle maker. Appropriately, Staiti states, nothing in his “background suggested a future in either art or politics.” After a seven-year apprenticeship making saddles, Peale discovered painting and saw an opportunity for a new vocation. Thanks to his aspirations in art and politics, he was the recipient of patronage that allowed him to journey to London where he could study with expatriate Pennsylvanian Benjamin West.
Peale learned well. Returning from his two-year apprenticeship under West, he was embraced by the elite society of Philadelphia and Maryland. He and the others were seen as more than artists. They were publicists, even propagandists, to tell the stories of the fight for independence and paintings of victorious moments and courageous leaders that served to encourage the citizens of the upstart band of colonies to continue fighting.
The artist built a reputation, and a business, early with his portraits of Gen. George Washington.
His 1776 painting of the General lauds the victory that forced the British to evacuate Boston in March of that year. Harvard awarded him an honorary degree; Congress had a commemorative medal struck in his honor, and John Hancock hired Peale to paint his portrait.
It was the first painting in honor of an American victory. Peale knew first-hand the horrors and chaos of battle; he was a member of the Philadelphia City Military Association, a militia group that, like so many, fought alongside the better trained and equipped colonial regulars. This battlefield experience served him well as he later delivered beautiful yet believable paintings of the war.
The stories Staiti tells are filled with drama and intrigue. In 1780, John Trumbull, apprenticed to Benjamin West in London, was arrested for high treason and imprisoned under horrific conditions for six months. West, as court painter to the King, intervened on his behalf with George III, and then he and fellow expatriate painter John Singleton Copley provided the bail money to free him. Trumbull, not taking any chances, fled for Amsterdam and then America.
Benjamin West, head of the Royal Academy, despite being American-born, navigated the treacherous waters between Loyalists who did not trust him and those sympathetic to the Colonists’ cause.
Branded derisively as “our Yankey painter,” an insult that was intended to rhyme with “donkey,” West stood the high ground. Remaining outwardly neutral, he was able to maintain his allegiance to the King and remain in his exalted position of honor throughout the war. West was standing close to the throne in November of 1782 when the King announced England’s capitulation to the Americans in an address to the House of Lords.
Only then could West celebrate with his fellow countrymen. Although he had hoped to paint a series of history paintings celebrating the American victory, he conceded that honor to John Trumbull. His unfinished “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations With Great Britain” in 1783 portraying John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin, is the only work he painted that approached this subject. Rather than a stiff, formal contrived setting, West’s “American Commissioners” painting is more a family portrait, an interesting metaphor for the British-American family and the Revolution that cast them apart.
John Singleton Copley, the third painter described in this book, was commissioned by John Adams in 1783 to paint a large, eight-foot portrait of himself when he was in London as one of the peace commissioners.
The painting, for which he paid 100 guineas (a bit more than 100 pounds sterling), was Adams’ futile effort at seeking the recognition of his more famous fellow patriots such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. Unlike the portraits of other American Revolutionary heroes, this was a painting he commissioned and paid for.
In the end, such self-aggrandizement was a failure. It was a portrait for which he never took delivery, leaving it with Copley where it remained until the artist’s death in 1815. Staiti attributes this to Adams’s guilt for ever commissioning such a “piece of vanity” in which “he could see his ego leaking out conspicuously.” Copley for all of his success in London, hoped to return to Boston after the war to resume his career there. But his efforts to recover his family’s estate, an eleven acre property on Beacon Hill, were unsuccessful. Moreover, his wife Susanna wished to remain in London. Copley was resigned “with deep pain and mortification” not to return to his beloved Boston.
Post war London is also home to another Bostonian, John Trumbull.
There, beginning in 1784, Trumbull starts a series of large paintings of the war’s seminal moments. The first of these was The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. Trumbull uses considerable dramatic license to show the death as heroic. In reality, General Warren was killed instantly by a musket ball to the head and was quickly buried with an anonymous soldier.
Unlike the highly romanticized “Great Style” picture Trumbull painted, the actual battle at Bunker’s Hill is acknowledged to have been a brutal and bloody affair. Trumbull’ second grand history painting was The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Québec, December 3, 1775. It was painted as a tribute to his mentor Benjamin West’s epic The Death of General Wolfe, who coincidentally died only a mile away in the French and Indian War sixteen years earlier.
Trumbull’s field experience as an officer in the militia once again came in handy as he is able to translate the horror, chaos, and hellish nature of the actual battlefield. General Montgomery’s death is told in epic proportions with smoke, sounds and light of the most dramatic and heroic manner. It would later serve him well when he worked to recreate this series for the United States Capitol.
The Paris of Virginian Thomas Jefferson and painter John Trumbull comes alive in Staiti’s narrative of the Hôtel de Langeac where Jefferson resided.
The looks of French painters Jacques-Louis David and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon are among the collection of Jefferson admirers. Fellow British painters Richard and Maria Cosway enter the picture as well setting off an interesting and sordid tale of love and lust, with the amorous Jefferson and the striking beauty Maria Cosway at the center of the scene. Given that it was a three year long romance, it could have used a bit more attention.
Alas, this is a book about art and the revolution, not Jefferson and his romances. While in Paris, Trumbull begins his monumental work on the Declaration of Independence. Although not perfectly accurate, historically speaking, it did achieve what Trumbull sought – dramatizing the historic moment when Jefferson and the Committee of Five present their draft to John Handcock, the President of the Continental Congress. For more than two hundred years, it has been depicted as a journalistic-like image of that history making scene in every history book.
Staiti winds down his own epic tale with chapters on Gilbert Stuart and again with John Trumbull.
Stuart, of modest background, Staiti decrees was “the master artist of the early republic” and for good reason. His depictions of Washington, for which he is most famous, made Washington a demigod. His first version was a great success. Orders for copies flowed in from John Jay, Aaron Burr, Benjamin West and a host of others. Stuart painted more than one hundred portraits of Washington between 1795 and 1825, the most famous of which was used to create the etching depicted on the American dollar bill.
Stuart’s image has been in continuous use on currency for more than one hundred and fifty years. This dedication to the General and first President helped to “enshrine Washington as the father of our country.” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a tribute to the famous painter, “He paints not merely a man’s features but his heart and his mind.”
The final chapter of this marvelous book retells the debate in Congress on whether or not to hire John Trumbull to paint four large 12 by 18 foot canvases to decorate the Capitol. Recently burned by the British in 1814, the war was over and the building needed a complete rebuilding.
President Madison advocated for the commission that included Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, The Declaration of Independence, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Epic in scale and story, they earned Trumbull the hefty commission of $32,000. Today they stand as a constant reminder of our revolutionary beginnings as a country, and the artists who created the visual legacy of that important era.
About author Paul Staiti, Art History Chair and Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation, Film Studies Steering Committee at Mt. Holyoke
Paul Staiti teaches courses in American art, architecture and film, including seminars on The Gilded Age and Reading the Hollywood Film. He’s published on the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, still-life painter William Michael Harnett, and American portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley.
For Copley he co-curated an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He has also written on the portraits of nineteenth-century American capitalists and the late sea pictures of Winslow Homer. Now he is working on the group of portraits Copley painted in London of American diplomats, including John Adams, at the end of the American Revolution.
Photo: VMFA Director Alex Nyerges welcomes visitors to the museum’s new James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing. (Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)