Excerpts from Autobiography, Reminiscences, and Letters of John Trumbull, 1841

Scanned and tagged by Mary Halnon, 1/97

[December 1816, Washington] Congress was in session, and my friend, Judge Nicholson, advised me to go on to Washington, and there offer my great, but long suspended, project of national paintings on the subjects from the Revolution. The Judge went with me, introduced me to his friends in both houses, and the plan was favorably received. Several gentlemen, (particularly Mr. Timothy Pitkin, of the house of representatives,) were zealous to see my plan executed in its full extent. Some of the studies were put up in the hall of the house; and in one of the debates on the subject, Mr. John Randolph was ardently eloquent in his commendation of the work, and insisted that I should be employed to execute the whole. The result was, that a resolution finally passed both houses, giving authority to the president "to employ me to compose and execute four paintings, commemorative of the most important erents of the American revolution, to be placed, when finished, in the Capitol of the United States."

The choice of the subjects, and the size of each picture, was left to the president, Mr. Madison. I immediately waited upon the president to receive his orders. The size was first discussed. I proposed that they should be six feet high by nine long, which would give to the figures half the size of life. The president at once over ruled me. "Consider, sir," said he, "the vast size of the apartment in which these works are to be placedÄthe rotunda, one hundred feet in diameter, and the same in heightÄpaintings of the size which you propose, will be lost in such a space; they must be of dimensions to admit the figures to be the size of life."

This was so settled, and when we came to speak of the subject, the president first mentioned the battle of Bunker Hill. Observing me to be silent, Mr. Madison asked if I did not approve that. My reply was, "that if the o rder had been (as I had hoped) for eight paintings, I should have named that first; but as there were only four commanded, I thought otherwise. It appeared to me, that there were two military subjects paramount to all others. We had, in the course of the Revolution, made prisoners of two entire armies, a circumstance almost without a parallel, and of course the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, and that of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, seemed to me indispensable. "True," replied he, " you are right; and what for the civil subjects?" "The declaration of independence, of a course." "What would you have for the fourth?" "Sir," I replied, " I have thought that one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world, was that presented by a the conduct of the commander-in-chief, in resigning his power and commission as he did, when the army, perhaps, would have been unanimously with him, and few of the people disposed to resist his retaining the power which he had used with such happy success, and such irreproachable moderation. I would recommend, then, the resignation of Washington. "After a momentary silent reflection, the president said, "I believe you ,are right, it was a glorious action."

The price was settled, at eight thousand dollars for each painting, and, as soon as the new administration was formed under Mr. Monroe, the secretary of state was charged to prepare a contract on these principles, which was done and was in the following form, viz.

"Articles of agreement, made and executed this fifteenth day of March, one thousand eight hundred and seventeen, between Richard Rush, secretary state for the United States, of the one part, and John Trumbull of Connecticut, of the other part.

Whereas, a resolution was passed on the sixth day of February, one thousand eight hundred and seventeen, by the senate and house of representatives of the United States, authorizing the president of the United States to employ the aforesaid John Trumbull, to compose and execute four paintings, commemorative of the most important of events of the Amencan revoluiion, to be placed, when finished, in the capitol of the United States ; now, therefore, I, Richard Rush, acting secretary of state as aforesaid, in virtue of authority vested in me by the president of the United States, do hereby employ the Said Jpn Trumbull, to compose and execute four paintings as aforesud, the subject of which, in pursuance of the spirit of the said resolution, to be as follows, viz.

"Ist. The Declaration of Independence ; 2nd Surrender of the British to the American forces at Saratoga; 3rd. The Surrender of the British to the American forces at Yorktown ; 4th. The Resignation of General Washington at Annapolis."

And the said John Trumbull engages, that each of tbe aforesaid paintings shall have a surface of not less than eighteen feet by twelve feet, with figures as large as life ; that they shall be executed with all reasonable dispatch, and in a manner (as far as may be attainable by the thrill of the said John Trumbull) worthy the dignity of the subjects, and the destination of the paintings when finished. And the said Richard Rush, acting secretary of state as aforesaid, engages to pay, or cause to be paid, to the said John Trumbull, the sum of thirty-two thousand dollars, in manner following, and not otherwise; that is to say, the sum of eight thousand dollars upon the execution of this instrument; the sum of six thousand dollars upon the completion and delivery of the first of the aforesaid paintings; the like sum of six thousand dollars upon the completion and delivery of the second of the aforesaid paintings; the like sum of six thousand dollars upon the completion and delivery of the third of the aforesaid paintings; and the like sum of six thousand dollars upon the completion and delivery of the fourth of the aforesaid paintings.

"And it is moreover understood and agreed by the said John Trumbull, that, in the case of his death before the completion or commencement of the first of the aforesaid paintings, or his inabiity occasioned by the other means to enter upon or complete it, the aforesaid sum of eight thousand dollars to be paid on the execution of this instrument as above mentioned, or such portion thereof as shall be just and reasonable, shall be by him refunded.

"In witness of which the parties have hereunto set their hands, the day and year above written, the party of the first part causing the seal of the department of state to be also hereunto affixed.

RICHARD RUSH, Acting Sec. State.

JOHN TRUMBULL."

Witnesses, DANIEL BRENT. JOHN H. PURVIANCE.

I had hardly commenced my first painting, when I received a letter from Charles Bulfinch, Esq., who had been recently appointed to succeed Mr. Latrobe as architect of the public buildings at Washington--(this letter was lost at the fire that partly consumed the Academy of Fine Arts in Barclay street, New York, in 1836, )--to which, the following is my answer, transcribed from my letterbook of that period.

New York, January 25, 1818.

CHARLES BULFINCH, ESQ., Architect of the Capitol, Washington.

DEAR SIR--Your favor of the 19th came duly to my hands, and the subject has entirely occupied my attention since. I will at present beg leave to state two difficulties, which to my mind appear formidable.

If you adopt a staircase similar to that in the city hall here, it will be imperfect without a dome light ; this will not come in the centre of the building. How then can you have the grand dome, even for show? To the saloon which you propose for the gallery of paintings, there is this insurmountable objection,Äthe pictures must hang opposite to the windows, which is the worst possible light ; besides which, the columns and projection of the portico will darken the room in some degree, and render what light tbere may be, partial and unsteady. These objections occurred to me at once and with the reluctance which I feel at the idea of abandoning the original plan of the capitol, so totally as to give up the circular room, and tbe grand dome, conspired to stimulate my imagination. An idea has occurred to me, which I think will preserve both, and unite originality, utility, simplicity, and grandeur, witb economy. It is difficult to explain my meaning fully, without drawings ; I am, therefore, endeavouring to put my plan on paper.

A young gentleman whom I employ to open a subscription for me at Washington, will leave this in two or three days, and will be with you about this day week ;by him I will send you the detailed descriptionsand draw of what has occurred to me, and I shall be truly happy if they should be of any use to you.

I heartily wish we were near each other, that I might have the pleasure of discussing with you, in conversation, the objections which will naturally occur to you. I am, &c.,

New York, Jan. 28th, 1818.

CHARLES BULFINCH, ESQ., Washington.

DEAR SIR--Your letter of the 19th, paints to me precisely the situation in which you would find yourself, on your arrival at Washington, surrounded by every diversity of opinions, interests and prejudices. That, under such circumstances, you should have felt the want of some friend, conversant with the arts, to advise with, was natural, although in any other situation the resources of your own mind would bare been amply equal to any professional difficulties which you might have to encounter. It gives me great satisfaction, that in such a moment you should have thought of consulting me; for, thirty years of personal acquaintance and esteem, have rendered your good opinion peculiarly valuable to me.

I am glad to know that so much is done, and magnificently done, at the Capitol ; but I feel the deepest regret at the idea of abandoning the great circular room and dome. I have never seen paintings so advantageously placed in respect to light and space, as I think mine would be, in the proposed circular room, illuminated from above. The boasted gallery of the Louvre is execrable for paintingsÄwindows on each side, and opposite to each other, and the pictures hanging not only between them but opposite to them. The governor's room here is subject, in part, to the same objectionÄthe pictures before hung generally opposite to the windows, and in two instances between them. The same objection applies in its full force, to the proposed saloon or gallery in the Capitol; and I should be deeply mortified, if, after having devoted my life to recording the great events of the Revolution, my paintings, when finished, should be placed in disadvantageous light. In truth, my dear friend, it would paralyze my exertions, for bad pictures are nearly equal to good, when both are placed in a bad light. These considerations must be my apology for presuming to offer any idea on the subject of architecture, of which I profess to have no other than a very superficial knowledge, and which I have studied only as connected with the picturesque of my own profession.

You state two objections to this favorite situation; first, that the room is so vast, that paintings of whatever size will appear small in it; and secondly, that, being open to the public, the paintings will be exposed to danger from damp, from the familiarity of friends, and from the malice of enemies.

In the plan which I venture to submit to you, I have endeavoured to obviate these difficulties. I proceed to the necessary details with diffidence, but with the hope that I may suggest to you Some ideas which may be ripened to maturity.

Referring to plan No.1, I propose then to enclose the basement story of the two porticos, in the same style of piers, and arches, as in the wings, and to enter, under each portico, a hall forty five feet by twenty, with apartments for door-keepers adjoiningÄto open a passage through the centre of the building, similar in style and dimensions to those already existing in the wings, which I also continue so as to meet each other, thus forming a simple obvious communication to all parts of the ground plan. I suppose the inner diameter of the grand circular dome to be ninety feet, and the thickness of the wall five. Nine feet within this wall, I carry up a concentric circular wall of equal thickness to the height of the basement story. Between these two walls I place grand quadruple stairs, beginning at the doors of the two halls, and mounting on the right and left, to the floor of the dome vestibule. Twenty feet within this inner wall of the stairs, I raise a third circular wall, of equal, or (if required) greater solidity. At the meeting of the two passages I thus obtain some variety of form, without any diminution of the requisite solidity, and the spaces contained within this central wall, the inner wall of the staircase, and the passages, will form four large, or eight small rooms, for the deposit of papers, &c. These rooms will be fire-proof, illuminated and aired by semicircular windows, secured by iron gratings, and pierced through the inner wall of the staircase, and will be entered by doors from the passages. The spaces under the stairs I devote to vaults for coal, &c., and in one (or two if necessary) of the triangular spaces left between the circle and the space, I place tbe fires necessary to warm the great room above, by means of flues conducted round the whole and over the two inner circular walls, as in the house of representatives. The corresponding plan will clearly explain this intricate description.

Plan No. 2, represents the grand staircased vestibule ; entering from the two wells, stairs nine feet and lighted from the dome, mount on the right and left of the Yestibule, and land at the entrances to the apartments of the senate and of the house of representatives. Around the inner wall of tbe stairs, I propose a bronze railing five feet high, with gates at the four entrances ; by this means the floor of the vestibule is diminished to twenty feet diameter, and the spectator cannot approach nearer to the wall on which the paintings hang than ten feet, nor view them at a greater distance than eighty, which being a little more than three diagonals of the surface, is not by any means too great. . Thus, my dear sir, two objections are removed.

Again, the room being warmed by flues, no danger is to be feared from dampness; where it will answer the essential purpose of an entrance to both houses, and a place where members and their friends may meet and converse at ease, in cold or warm weather. The warm air will equally affect the Stairs and the record-rooms below, to which it will be admitted freely, through the grated openings on the staircase.

During the hours that the houses are in session, one of their door- keepers ought, for obvious reasons, to be in this room, and at all other times the gates at the four entrances of the railing should be kept locked, by which means the public will have access here, only as you propose, to the saloon, under the eye of a proper guardian ; while the members of the government will possess a splendid entrance to their several apartments, and the present entrances and stairs will become secondary in their destination, as they will be in their dimensions.

No. 3, is a slight ideal view of the grand vestibule and staircase, as seen at entering from the hall of either portico. In the centre, the passage is seen in front, the stairs are shown in their ascent and the solid wall of the record-rooms, with their semicircular window. The railing is also shown, with the general proportions and decorations of the grand room. I

Perhaps I am wrong, for we are all partial to the offspring of our own minds ; yet I cannot but believe, that the effect of such a room would be peculiarly grand and imposing, from the union of vastness of dimensions with simplicity of form and decoration. The uses of the room have already been spoken of. I have only omitted to observe the manner in which it is connected with the two porticos, which, in fine weather, and on occasions of great national solemnities, such as inaugurations, &c., would form magnificent accompaniments.

Having thus explained my ideas, (I hope intelligible, with the aid of the drawings,) permit me to add a few words on the important subject of economy, where I am persuaded there is strong ground of recommendation. I want not a column nor a capital ; plain solid walls, embellished only by four splendid door-casings of white marble, and elegant workmanship; a fascia of white marble running around the room, with an ornament somewhat like that which surmounts the basement story on the outside; and a frieze crowning the top of the wall, where, either now or at some future time, basso-relieros may be introduced ; these are all the decoration, which I propose, except the paintings.

Compare now, my dear friend, the expenses of this with the sum which will be necessary to introduce merely a staircase, line that in the city ball here, which can be distinguished from its prototype only by greater dimensions, and more exquisite decorations. Twenty-four Corinthian columns, at least, with their capitals, entablature, and sculptured dome, all in the purest white marble and choicest workmanship, will be necessary, and after all it will be but a copy.

Permit me to add, that the great circular room and dome, made a part of the earliest idea of the Capitol, as projected by Major L'Enfant, drawn by Dr. Thornton, and adopted by General Washington. You will see it so marked on the plan of the city engraved by Thackera de Vallence, in Philadelphia, in 1792. If there be a dislike to M. Latrobe's plans, that dislike cannot apply to this part of the building; here he only followed the original intentions.

I believe that my plan differs from that finally adopted by him, essentially, in carrying up the grand staircase within the room, thus rendering it a guard to the paintings, and leaving the basement of the two porticos, and the whole substructure, free and applicable to economical purposes. I also omit the grand niches which M. Latrobe had devised, I presume for the purpose of sculpture. It appears to me, that the uninterrupted simplicity of the room will add to its grandeur, and that ample scope is left for sculpture, either now or hereafter, in the frieze, while abundant space is thus acquired upon the walls for other paintings than mine.

I hope, my dear sir, that I have made myself understood, and I shall rejoice if, either upon my plan or some other, you can succeed to preserve the great central circular room. Indeed, I must entreat you to preserve it if possible ; and I repeat, that the loss of that, in my opinion, unrivalled situation and light for my pictures, I shall lose half my zeal.

Forgive the earnestness with which I write, for I consider my future fame involved in tbhis question, and excuse the inaccuracies which may have escaped me.

I am, &c. &c. J.T.

New York, July 25th, 1818.

CHARLES BULLFINCH, Esq., Washington.

DEAR SIR-- I received your favor of April 17th, in proper time, and it relieved my mind from no slight anxiety, inasmuch as your plan has saved the grand room, and gives at the same time all those various conveniences which were indispensably necessary.

It appears to me, that you have extricated yourself most happily from the multitude of contradictory projects with which you was surrounded. The granite basement is, I presume, original; I cannot recollect any example of the kind, nor do I find any among a collection of views of country seats in England, which I have. I believe the effect will prove as you anticipate, useful to the perspective; but if it should prove otherwise, the necessity of the case justifies the novelty ; and nothing can be easier than to disguise it by what the English call planting it out, that is, screening it from distant view by shrubs.

My first painting approaches its completion. Is there any place in the building where it can be put up in a proper light? I should regret to have it seen in a bad one, and wish not to have it removed too often. It is so large, that few doors will admit it when stretched, its shortest diameter being twelve feet, and I should not be willing to have it rolled, unless I am present. Will you think of this, and inform me how and where it can be placed?

You will forgive my long delay in answering yours ; I had nothing to suggest, and we were both too busy to write or read unnecessary letters.

I hope Mrs. Bulfinch and all your family are well, and Mrs. Trumbull unites with me in best wishes for them and you.

I am, &c. J. T.

The foregoing letter was in answer to one in which Mr. Bulfinch gave me a detailed description of his plan for the present western front of the Capitol, by which he gained space for the library, &c., and saved the dome. This letter itself was lost (I presume) in the fire which consumed the upper floor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Barclay street.

JOHN Q. ADAMS, Esq., Secretary of State.

DEAR SIR-- I take the liberty to enclose to your care a letter for Mr. Cardelli, which I have just received from his friends in Europe.

You will permit me to avail myself of this occasion, to speak to you of my painting. It is so far advanced, that I may safely promise, that the large work will be superior to the small--a result of which I was by no means secure in the beginning.. It would be finished more, but for the numerous and daily interruptions which arise from the increasing curiosity of friends and strangers. It is difficult to refuse to my countrymen, whether personally known to me or not, a view of a painting in which all are deeply interested, and for which all must contribute to pay ; but the tax upon my time becomes daily more severe, and the delay of the work is painful.

This has determined me to request from the President, permission to exhibit it publicly to the view of the citizens, previous to its removal to Washington. I shall then be justified in not showing it during its progress. Many are anxious to see it and few will have an opportunity after it shall have gone to its destination. At the same time that public curiosity will thus be gratified, I trust that the exibition will prove a source of some legitimate advantage to myself.

I trust the President will not object to this. You must recollect that Mr. Copley exhibited his Gibraltar, which was painted for the city of London, previously to its being put up in Guildhall. Will you, my dear sir, have the goodness to make this request known to the President, and solicit for me his consent. I do not write to him on the subject, because I would not add to his labors. Have the goodness to assure him that I lose no time, and spare no labor, to render this work worthy of its ultimate destination, and of the national patronage.

Please to accept the assurance of Mrs. Trumbull and myself, of our best wishes for the health and happiness of Mrs. Adams, yourself, and your family. I am, &c.

The work went on without interruption, and was finished in 1824. The following is a copy of the final settlement of my account at the treasury of the United States.

[No. 1546.]

Treasury Department, fifth Auditor's office, Decenuber 27th, 1824.

I hereby certify, that I have examined and adjusted an account between tbe United States and John Trumbull, relative to paintings for the Capitol, and find that he is chargeable as follows,-viz.

To treasury warrants, as by registerÕs certificate herewith,

For No. 476, dated March 15th, 1817, for $8,000

No. 234, dated March 4th, 1819, for 6,000

No. 9267, dated Nov.13th, 1820, for 6,000

No. 67, dated May1st, 1822, for 6,000

No. 5584, dated Dec. 24th, 1824, for 6,000

$32,000

I also find that he is entitled to credit, for the following historical paintings, executed agreeably to his contract with Richard Rush, Esq., acting secretary of state, entered into with him in pursuance of a resolution of Congress, passed on the 6th day of February , 1817.

Declaration of Independence, as by voucher No. l, $8,000

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, voucher No.2, 8,000

Surrender of Gen. Burgoyne, voucher No.3, 8,000

Resignation of General Washington of his commission to Congress, voucher No.4, 8,000

$32,000

It appears from the statement and vouchers herewith transmitted, for the decision of the comptroller of the treasury, therein.

STEPHEN PLEASONTON, Auditor.

TO JOSEPH ANDERSON, Esq. Comptroller of the treasury.

Treasury Department, Comptroller's office, December, 29th, 1824.

Admitted and certified, JOSEPH ANDERS0N, Comptroller.

TO JOSEPH NOURSE, Esq., Register.

December, 29th, 1824.

I hereby certify that the foregoing report is a true copy of the original on file in this office, and that the account on which the foregoing advances were made is finally closed in the books of this office.

JOSEPH NOURSE, Register.

The last picture was scarcely finished in April, 1824, when I had the misfortune to lose my wife, who had been the faithful and beloved companion of all the vicissitudes of twenty four years. She was the perfect personification of truth and sincerity--wise to counsel, kind to console--by far the more important and better moral half of me, and withal, beautiful beyond the usual beauty of women! And as if this calamity was not sufficient, the friend who had kindly advanced money for me during my last unfortunate residence in Europe, found it necessary from the state of his own affairs, to ask a settlement. It was made, and it required all my means to meet the demand. Every thing however which could be converted into money was disposed of, at whatever sacrifice, and among other things, land was placed in the account at ten thousand dollars, which would now sell for one hundred thousand.

I HAD assisted in saving the dome and central grandeur of the Capitol, but whim and caprice ruled in tbe execution of the details. A notion had long prevailed, that a statue of Washington must be placed in the Capitol and where so well as under the centre of the dome, on the ground floor, where it would be always accessible to and under the eye of the people ; the ground floor might then become a magnificent crypt, and the monument of the . : father of his country, surrounded by those of her illustrious : sons, might there seem still to watch over and to guard the interests of the nation which they had founded. The idea was poetical, grand, and captivating.

The statue being there, must be lighted, and as the projection of the porticos must necessarily screen all the light which might otherwise have been obtained from the arches between the piers of the ground floor, it was evident that the object could only be attained by letting down light from the summit of the dome; and to effect this, it would be necessary also to pierce the floor of the grand room, with an opening large enough for this purpose, say twenty feet diameter, at least. These whims prevailed, and the project was adopted. Of course, the staircase which I had recommended, together with the fire-proof rooms for the preservation of important records, &c., were sacrificed, and instead of the concentric wallsand simple arches of my plan, to support the floor of the great room, a wilderness of truncated columns and groined arches were employed for that purpose, and this wilderness, called the crypt, very soon degenerated into a stand for a crowd of female dealers in apples, nuts, cakes, liquors, &c., for the accommodation of hackney coachmen, servants, negroes, &c., and becoming an intolerable nuisance, was ultimately denounced as such by Mr. John Randolph, and abated.

In the mean time, I was in New York, busily employed in finishing my picture of the Declaration of Independence, and knew nothing of the architectural department, and the intrigues which perpetually controlled the good intentions and pure taste of Mr. Bulfinch, until l arrived at Washington with that picture. It was placed temporarily in a room of the north Wing, then used for the sittings of the supreme court ; this part of the building had been first erected, and was believed to be perfectly dry ; yet this room proved to be damp to such a degree, that I thought it to be my duty to write the following letter to the secretary of state.

Washington,Feb. 18th, 1819.

To J. Q. ADAMS, Esq., &c.

SIR-- Having carefully examined the room in the Capitol, in which the picture which I have painted for the government of the United States is at present placed, I feel it to be my duty to state to you, for the informaton of the President, my opinion, that, in consequence of the dampness of the walls and vaulting of that room, it is by no means advisable that the painting should remain there longer than may be thought necessary for the satisfaction of tbe members of the government, and the immediate gratification of public curiosity.

The cloth on which this work is executed, was prepared in the most approved and perfect manner, by the same person who is employed by Mr. West, to prepare those which are the basis of his admirable works. In this preparation, size is necessarily employed, which in damp situations is subject to contract mildew, and of course to decay ; and no dampness is found to be so fatal to paintings, as the exhalations from newly erected masonry, where the corrosive quality of lime . is added to the pernicious effect of mere moisture. I am, &c.

When, in 1823, the last of the four paintings approached its termination, I wrote to Mr. Bulfinch, the architect, the following letter.

New York, Dec. 16th, 1823.

CHARLES BULFINCH, Esq., &c. &c.

DEAR SIR--MY last painting for the Capitol, the Resignation of WashiDgton, altbough far advanced, will not be ready to deliver during the present session ; but, trusting from your last letter, that the great room will be quite finished, dry, and ready to receive them all at some time during the approaching summer, and before the next session, I wish to arrange with you, the time when all will be prepared and dry, that I may come on and see them all put in their places.

It will be necessary that the pannels on which they are to be strained, should be prepared in the mean time, of perfectly seasoned mahogany or cedar, and also the gilt frames.

Two young men of this town, whom I have employed for some time, and regard as excellent workmen, Messrs. Parker and Clover, are desirous of being employed to execute the gilt frames, and should there be no other arrangement, I beg leave to recommend them strongly to you, and to the commissioner of the public buildings.

Mrs. Trumbull joins me in best wishes for the health and happiness of Mrs. Bulfinch, yourself, and family.

I am, &c. &c., J.T.

When, in 1824, I went to Washington, to place all the paintings in their ultimate destination, I found the grand room finished indeed, but so very damp that I felt great reluctance at placing them there, and insisted most strenuously upon having the great opening in the centre of the room, which had been left for the purpose of lighting the crypt, closed; for, as the arches behind and under the porticos were closed only by iron grilles, the external air was freely admitted into the crypt, in all varieties of weather, as well by night as by day, and thence, by means of this unfortunate and ill judged opening, distributed through the great room, to every part of the principal floor of the building, rendering the atmosphere of all the apartments equally damp and cold as the weather in the open square. My remonstrances, however, were all in vain; and in this situation the four paintings were placed and remained, until in 1828, the change on their surfaces became obvious and conspicuous to all who saw them, and occasioned the resolution of the house of representatives alluded to in the following report, which I addressed to the speaker of the house on the 9th of December, 1828.

Twentieth Congress, Second Session. [Doc. No. 10.} Ho. of Reps.

NATIONAL PAINTINGS.

Letter from JOHN TRUmBULL, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, on the subject of the national paintings in the rotunda of the Capitol, Dec. 9th, 1828, read, and laid upon the table.

To the Honorable, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, United States.

SIR--On the 30th of May last, I received from the commissioner of the public buildings, a copy of the resolution of the honorable the house of representatives, dated the 26th of May, authorizing him to take, under my direction, the proper measures for securing the paintings in the rotunda from the effect of dampness.

I had always regarded tbe perpetual admission of damp air into the rotunda from the crypt below, as the great cause of the evil required to be remedied, and of course considered the effectual closing of the aperture which bad been left in the centre of the floor as an indispensable part of the remedy. I had communicated my opinions on this subject to the chairman of the committee on public buildings, and I had been informed that this had been ordered to be done.

So soon, therefore, as I received information from the commissioner that this work was completed, (as well as an alteration in the sky-light, which I had suggested, ) and that the workmen and incumbrances were removed out of the room, I came on and proceeded to take the several measures for the preservation of the paintings, which are stated in detail in the following report, which I beg leave to submit to the houses.

1st. All the paintings were taken down, removed from their frames, taken off from the pannels over which they are strained, removed to a dry warm room, and there separately and carefully examined. The material which forms the basis of these paintings is a linen cloth, whose strength and texture is very similar to that used for the topgallant-sails of a ship of war. The substances employed to form a proper surface for the artist, together with the colors, oils, &c., employed by him in his work, form a sufficient protection for the threads of the canvass on this face, but the back remains bare, and of course exposed to the damp air. The effect of this is first seen in the form of mildew--it was this which I dreaded; and the examination showed that mildew was already commenced, to an extent which rendered it manifest that the continuance of the same exposure which they had hitherto undergone, for a very few years longer, would have accomplished the complete decomposition or rotting of the canvass, and the consequent destruction of the paintings. The first thing to be done was to dry the canvass perfectly, which was done by laying down each picture successively on its face, upon a clean dry carpet, and exposing the back to the influence of the warmth of a dry and well aired room. The next thing was to devise and apply some substance, which would act permanently as a preservative against future possible exposure.

I had learned that a few years ago, some of the eminent chemists of France had examined with great care, several of the ancient mummies of Egypt, with a view to ascertain the nature of the materials employed by the embalmers, which the lapse of so many ages had proved to possess the power of protecting from decay a substance otherwise so perishable as the human body. This examination had proved, that after the application of liquid asphaltum to the cavities of the head and body, the whole had been wrapped carefully in many envelopes or bandages of linen prepared with wax. The committee of chemists decided further, after a careful examination and analysis of the hieroglyphic paintings with which the cases, &c. are covered, tbat the colors employed, and still retaining their vivid brightness, had also been prepared and applied wvith the same substance.

I also knew, that towards the close of the last century, the Antiquarian Society of England had been permitted to open and examine the stone coffin deposited in one of the vaults of Westminster Abbey, and said to contain the body of King Edward I who died in July, 1807. On removing the stone lid of the coffin, its contents were found to be closely enveloped in a strong linen cloth waxed; within this envelope were found splendid robes of silk, enriched with various ornaments, covering the body, which was found to be entire, and to have been wrapped carefully in all its parts, even to each separate finger, in bandages of fine linen, which had been dipped in melted wax; and not only was the body not decomposed, but the various parts of the dress, such as a scarlet satin mantle, and a scarlet piece of sarsnet, which was placed over the face, were in perfect preservation, even to their colors. The knowledge of these facts, persuaded me that wax, applied to the back of the paintings, would form the best defense hitherto known to exist against the destructive effects of damp and stagnant air; and therefore,

2ndly. Common beesÕ wax was melted over a fire, with an equal quantity (in bulk) of oil of turpentine, and this Mixture, by the help of large brushes, was applied hot to each cloth, and was afterwards rubbed in, with hot irons, until the cloths were perfectly saturated.

3rdly. In the mean time, the niches in the solid wall, in which the paintings are placed, were carefully plastered over with hydraulic cement, to prevent the possible exudation of any moisture from the wall; and, as there is a space from two to eight inches deep between the surface of the wall and the pannels on which the cloths are strained, I caused small openings to be cut in the wall, above and under the edge of the frames, and communicating with those vacant spaces, for the purpose of admitting the air of the room behind the paintings, and thus keeping up a constand ventilation, by means of which the same temperature of air will be maintained at the back of the paintings as on their face.

4thly. The cloths were finally strained upon pannels, for the purpose of guarding against injury from careless or intentional blows of sticks, canes, &c., or from any childrenÕs missiles. These pannels are perforated with many holes, to admit the air freely to the back of the cloths, and being dried, were carefully painted, to prevent the wood from absorbing or transmitting any humidity. The whole being then restored to their places, were finally cleaned with care, and slightly re-varnished.

5thly. As the accumulation of dust, arising from sweeping so large a room, and what is much worse, the filth of flies, (the most destructive enemies of painting,) if not carefully guarded against, renders necessary the frequent washing and cleaning of the surface of pictures, every repetition of which is injurious, I have directed curtains to be placed, which can be drawn in front of the whole, whenever the room is to be swept, as well as in the recess of the legislature during the summer months, when flies are most pernicious.

6thly. As nothing is more obvious than the impossibility of keeping a room warm and dry by means of fire, so long as doors are left open for the admission of the external air, I have further directed self-closing baize doors to be prepared, and placed so that they will unavoidably close behind every one who shall either enter or leave the room.

When the doors are kept closed, and fires are lighted in the furnaces below to supply warm air, I find that the temperature of this vast apartment is easily maintained at about sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit ; and the simple precaution of closed doors being observed, in addition to the others which I have employed, I entertain no doubt, that these paintings are now perfectly and permanently secured against the deleterious effects of dampness.

I regret that I was not authorized to provide against the danger of damage by violence, whether intended or accidental. Curiosity naturally leads men to touch as well as to look at objects of this kind, and placed as low as they are, not only the gilded frames and curtains, but the paintings, are within the reach of spectators; repeated handling, even by the best intentioned and most careful, will in the course of time produce essential damage. But one of the paintings testifies to the possibility of their being approached for the very purpose of doing injury; the right foot of General Morgan, in the picture of Saratoga, was cut off with a sharp instrument, apparently a pen-knife. I have repaired the wound, but the scar remains visible. If I had possessed the authority, I should have placed in front, and at the distance of not less than ten feet from the wall, an iron railing, of such strength and elevation as should form a complete guard against injury by ill-disposed persons, unless they should employ missiles of some force.

I beg leave to commend to the attention of the house, this further precaution.

All which is most respectfully submitted to the houes, by

JOHN TRUMBULL.


from Catalogue of Paintings, by Colonel Trumbull; including Eight Subjects of the American Revolution, with Near Two Hundred and Fifty Portraits of Persons Distinguished in that Important Period. Painted by Him From Life.

No. 29--SURRENDER OF LORD CORNWALLIS.--Oct. 19, 1718. The success of this officer in the southern states, during the years 1780 and 1781, the capture of Charleston, the victory of Camden, and various minor successes, by which almost every part of Georgia and South and North Carolina had been successively occupied by the British troops, had seriously threatened the ruin of American independence.

In 1781, Lord Cornwallis, regarding his presence as no longer essential to the complete reduction of the three southern states, marched with the principal part of his force into Virginia, where for some time, his success was almost equally rapid and complete; but the admirable combined movement of General Washington and our French allies, from the north, and of te Count de Grasse, with the fleet and army of France, from the West Indies, turned the scale, and rendered it necessary for him to shut himself up in Yorktown, and attempt to defend himself there, until he could receive relief from New York. This hope, however, failed him, and on the 19th of October, he surrendered his forces to the combined armies of America and France.

The honor of marching out of the town, with colors flying, &c. &c., which had been refused to General Lincoln, when, during the preceding campaign he had surrendered Charleston, was now refused to Lord Cornwallis; the terms of the capitulation dictated at Charleston were insisted on, and General Lincoln was appointed to superintend the submission of the British at Yorktown, in the same manner as that of the American troops at Charleston, under his command, had been conducted about eighteen months before.

The American troops were drawn up on the right of the road leading into York; General Washington and the American general officers on the right. The French troops on the opposite side of the road facing them; General Rochambeau and the principal officers of te French navy and army on the left. The British troops marched out of town, Òwith shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating a British or German march,Ó passed between the two lines of victorious troops, to a place appointed, where they grounded their arms, left them, and returned unarmed to their quarters in the town.

The painting represents the moment when the principal officers of the British army, conducted by General Lincoln, are passing the two groups of American and French generals, and entering between the two lines of the victors; by this means the principal officers of the three nations are brought near together, so as to admit of distinct portraits.

In the centre of the painting, in the distance, is seen the entrance of the town, with the captured troops marching out, following their officers; and also a distant glimpse of the York River, and the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the spot.

No. 31.--RESIGNATION OF GENERAL WASHINGTON. --December 23, 1783. Washington, 1827.

The peace of 1783 had accomplished the great object of the American revolution; the former colonies were acknowledged by the parent state to be independent of her; but they were equally independent of each other, and the pressure of common danger, which had been the strongest bond of union, being removed, there remained only a feeble and doubtful sense of common interest to hold the different states together; the large states began to feel their real superiority, while the memory of faithful and disproportioned services swam before the vision of the small; the seeds of discord were sown and germinating. The army, whose fidelity, patience and courage, had won the glorious prize, had leisure to look back upon the years, during which, without pay, without clothing, and sometimes almost without food, they had persevered in duty,--tantalized with promises, often renewed under various forms, but never fulfilled, they saw themselves on the point of being disbanded, and by being scattered among the mass of their fellow citizens, deprived of any chance of obtaining justice by the influence of a united effort; nor were there wanting among them fiery spirits, to place all this distinctly before their view, and to urge them not to lay down their arms or disperse, until substantial justice should be obtained. What a dazzling temptation was here to earthly ambition! Beloved by the military, venerated by the people, who was there to oppose the victorious chief, if he had chosen to retain that power which he had so long held with universal approbation? The Caesars, the Cromwells, the Napoleons, yielded to the charm of earthly ambition, and betrayed their country; but Washington aspired to loftier, imperishable glory,--to that glory which virtue alone can give, and which no power, no effort, no time, can ever take away or diminish.

After taking an affectionate leave of his old comrades at New York, accompanied by only two of them, Col. Benjamin Walker, and Col. Humphreys, aids-du-camp, he proceeded to Annapolis, where Congress, the very shadow of a government, were then sitting, and there resigned his commission into the hands of twenty three powerless men, divested himself of all authority, and retired to private life.

The following impressive history of the scene is copied from the Journal of Congress, and has been the basis of the picture. One additional circumstance deserves notice, not so much for its importance as for its singularity. Thomas Mifflin, then president of Congress, and into whose hands the general resigned his commission, had been, in 1775, his first aid-du-camp, and he who painted the picture had been his second.

Extract from the Journal of Congress, Dec. 23, 1783.

According to order, his Excellency, the commander-in-chief, was admitted to a public audience, and being seated, the President, after a pause, informed him that the United States, in Congress assembled, were prepared to receive his communications; whereupon he rose and addressed Congress as follows:--

MR PRESIDENT--

The great events on which my resignation depended, having at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.

Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence,--a diffidence in my ability to accomplish so arduous a task; which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of heaven.

The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place, the peculiar services and distinguished merits of te gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war. It was impossible that the choice of confidential officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me, sir, to recommend in particular those who have continued in the service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last act of my official life by commending the interests of our country to Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.

Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from teh great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.

He then advanced and delivered to the President his commission, with a copy of his address, and having resumed his place, the President returned to him the following answer:--

SIR--The United States, the Congress assembled, receive with emotions too affecting for utterance, the solemn resignation of the authorities under which you have led their troops with success through a perilous and doubtful war. Called upon by your country to defend its invaded rights, you accepted the sacred charge before it had formed alliances, and while it was without funds or a government to support you ; you have conducted the great military contest with wisdom and fortitude, invariably regarding the rights of the civil power through all disasters and changes. You have, by the love and confidence of your fellow citizens enabled them to display their martial genius, and transmit their fame to posterity. You have persevered till these United States, aided by a magnanimous king and nation, have been enabled, under a just Providence, to close the war in freedom safety, and independence, on which happy event we sincerely join you in congratulations.

Having defended the standard of liberty in this new world, having taught a lesson useful to those who inflict, and to those who feel oppression, you retire from the great theatre of action with the blessings of your fellow citizens; but the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command,--it will continue to animate remotest ages.

We feel with you, our obligations to the army in general, and will particularly charge ourselves with the interests of those confidential officers, who bave attended your person to this affecting moment.

We join you in commending the interest of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens, to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation. And for you, we address to him our earnest prayers, that a life so devoted may be fostered with all his care ; that your days may be as happy as they have been illustrious ; and that he will finally give you the reward which this world cannot give.