Powell's De Soto and United States History

John Trumbull's Republicanism: The First Four Rotunda Murals

Original Conception: John Dyer
First Extension: Eric J. Gislason


The eight paintings in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol narrate the discovery and independence of America in two phases. Connecticut artist John Trumbull (1756-1843), an army officer and aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, completed the first four panels between 1819 and 1824. This group of paintings treats episodes from the Revolutionary period--two civil and two military. The second four, including William Powell's Discovery of the Mississippi by Hernando De Soto, 1541 A. D. were painted by various artists and purchased by Congress between 1840 and 1853. These portray seminal events of the English and Spanish colonial eras. Trumbull insisted to his death that he was painter most suited to officially document the Revolution, and after he completed the first four Rotunda murals he futilely lobbied Congress for the right to paint the second group of murals. The importance of Powell's De Soto as the endpoint of the progression of murals will be examined through a step-by-step analysis of each painting, tracing Trumbull's initial establishment of a narrative of American republicanism through its ultimate re-description as part of an imperialist narrative.

The Declaration of Independence in Congress, at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4th, 1776 was the first painting hung in the Rotunda (1819). It depicts a formative moment of the Revolution, although not the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, it portrays the committee charged with drafting the Declaration reporting to the President of the Congress. Trumbull here affirms the central tenet of republicanism: the priority of select individuals working in concert for the greater good. The setting for the painting is formal and rational; authority rests in the balance achieved at the table, where the President of the Congress, John Hancock, offsets the writers of the Declaration--John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. The Doric cornice of neo-classical architecture alludes to the classical republicanism the founding fathers sought to establish through both the Enlightenment and American revolutions.

The second painting installed in the Rotunda in 1820 was the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19th, 1781. Balance continues, as does the rationalization and formal ritual emphasized in the Declaration. Unlike the Declaration, however, this painting revisits an acknowledged defeat, one which ended the war. The national decision depicted in the signing of the Declaration of Independence began formal hostilities: in Surrender of Lord Cornwallis these hostilities have passed, and order returns. Notice how the two sides create a rough parity between the armies and their equally dignified groups of flags, troop columns, and horses. Only General Lincoln's superior position on horseback, General George Washington backstage, and the rising smoke from the British side betray the victor. And even here the white horse of the victor harmonizes with the white flag of the vanquished to retain a respectful equanimity. This surrender concludes what Trumbull views as a gentleman's disagreement, a quarrel that has been gravely fought and honorably won.

In 1822, Trumbull went back even further in U. S. history to render The Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, October 17th, 1777. Dignified ritual and balance reign: the cannon to the right and the horse and rider on the left balance the painting around the fulcrum of the victorious American general. This exaltation of the individual in a harmonious worldly setting--the only trace of battle here is the cannon in the foreground--sustains the gentlemanly deportment and respect of the first two paintings, and echoes the Enlightenment's view of man as central in the universe. General Gates comprises the axis of the painting; his democratic views are valorized. As he hospitably accepts Burgoyne's sword, both officers tacitly admit the superiority of the American position. Pictorially, Gates and Burgoyne are matched so that the shift in status is minimal. Humanism and republicanism, not god and monarchy, rule the day. As in Cornwallis at Yorktown, an epic conflict has occurred, but civilization remains secure.

The greatest of Trubull's four paintings, however, is General George Washington Resigning His commission to Congress as Commander in Chief of the Army at Annapolis, Maryland, December 23rd, 1783. Painted in 1824, the formal unities of the congregation reach their height. Trumbull conjures a return to the civil obeisance which marked the Declaration. The Founding Father defers to the United States, the individual submits to the deliberative, and the executive power yields before Congress. The impetus for Washington's noble decision is present in the visitor's gallery, in his wife, Martha, and grandchildren, symbols of the family and private sphere. The gallery sits atop an Ionic capitol, signifying the classical origins of republicanism and the rational order on which democracy rests. Washington's willingness to resign, to give up his power to others in order that he might return home to a domestic life, speaks of his confidence in the capacity of the young nation to continue its democratic experiment.

Two other paintings by Trumbull further explain his Rotunda works: The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, both completed in 1786. These pictures reveal similar, even more explicitly rendered themes constitutive of Trumbull's republicanism.

In Bunker Hill, for example, British officer Major Small prevents a grenadier from bayonetting the helpless Warren. The painting emphasizes the virtue of self-restraint, a trope common to each of Trumbull's four Rotunda paintings. Magnanimity, generosity, and the example of the beneficent, humble ruler all find expression here. These themes are recapitulated in Washington's Resigning. Jules David Prown writes that "the fundamental theme is humanitarianism and generosity, the bonds that unite humans, rather than the forces that set them at each other's throats."10

In Quebec, Trumbull provides us with a similar analogy, this time in relation to the Declaration. Here three revolutionaries mark the death of General Montgomery, who is struck in a pose similar to that of the Pieta. This painting may have been based on Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatti (1785), in which three classical figures raise their arms to swear an oath of vengeance (below, left).


John Singleton Copley's 1779-81 The Death of the Earl of Chatham (above, right), also probably influenced Trumbull's Quebec. Here Members of Parliament cradle the collapsed earl, amidst a "sea of legs" like that for which Representative John Randolph criticized the Declaration in 1828. 11

Trumbull uses the same imagery of Horatti in Quebec, where the three revolutionaries raise their arms to the dying Montgomery, and in Declaration, where the drafting committee of Jefferson and others resemble this formation. Although in Declaration, Trumbull places it in the context of the legislature, where the focus of the painting is a dying man, that of the revolutionary soldier and leader. Following this analysis, if President John Hancock's table in the State House at Philadelphia in Declarationis equated to the Pieta of General Montgomery in Quebec, as well as to Copley's dying earl, the Declaration of Independence becomes equivalent to salvation and martyrdom as well as to its more traditional importance as a covenant.

As Trumbull grew older, he became increasingly isolated from his younger contemporaries of the mid-century. The critic Egon Verheyen describes him in terms reminiscent of Rip Van Winkle: "Between the peace of 1783 and his death in 1843 two generations had arisen and [Trumbull ] was, to the greater number of them, like one who lingered on the shores of time or had perchance returned from another world."12

The incompatibility between the revolutionaries of 1776 and their descendants will be addressed in the work of Richard Caton Woodville. The next piece, however, deals with the mid-century murals, those paintings that revised Trumbull's narrative of aristocratic republican origins and re-inscribed his works in a history more compatible with mid-19th century national interests.