Painting Revolution: John Trumbull and Artistic Exchange between America and France

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775, by John Trumbull / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For both French and American artists, there was an initial interest in depicting the events of the American Revolution in the 1780s, followed by a later wave of art in the 1820s and ’30s.

By Dr. Tanya Pohrt
Project Curator of American Art, Lyman Allyn Art Museum
Adjunct Professor of Cart History, Connecticut College


For both French and American artists, there was an initial interest in depicting the events of the American Revolution in the 1780s, followed by a later wave of art in the 1820s and ’30s. This paper examines the timeline, politics and artistic parameters shaping this art, which was both documentary and symbolic in nature, with artists building on one another’s work. For John Trumbull it was only with time and the buffer of a second war with Britain, the War of 1812, that he was able to obtain a government commission, but his later paintings of the American Revolution were essentially enlarged versions of his compositions from the 1780s. Trumbull studied in the London studio of Benjamin West and was heavily influenced by contemporary British painting. Yet French art and culture were also influential, and this relationship has not been sufficiently studied. Trumbull travelled to France a number of times, beginning in 1786, when he met Jacques-Louis David, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Jean-Antoine Houdon and other important French artists, incorporating aspects of David’s compositions into his own work. It was also in Paris that Trumbull began to compose the Declaration of Independence under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson. Like most Americans, Trumbull initially supported the French Revolution and saw parallels between it and the American Revolution. He intended to paint early scenes from the French Revolution, including the fall of the Bastille. But although he sympathized with Jefferson and the French republican philosophers, shifting politics and the violence of the French Revolution turned his opinion by 1793.


Artists from both France and America celebrated the events of the American Revolution and commemorated their respective contributions to the War of Independence from Britain. For artists of both nationalities there was an interest in depicting the events of the Revolution after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, with Americans wanting to document and mark their independence and the French proud to celebrate their important role in supporting the war. This initial wave of art was followed by paintings created a generation later, between about 1820 and the 1830s. With America’s involvement in the War of 1812 and the July Revolution in France, subsequent leaders drew on memories of America’s War of Independence and the alliances of the American Revolution to bolster their own national ends. With the fifty-year anniversary of the American Revolution, American President James Madison invited the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, to visit America for a triumphal tour, initiating a wave of portraits of Lafayette and other commemorative art.

In America the painter John Trumbull (1756–1843) began a speculative project to document the great events of the Revolution in the 1780s, yet it was only with time and the patriotic swell of a second victory over Britain following the War of 1812, that he was able to obtain a government commission to paint four large (12 × 18 feet; 3.66 × 5.48 metres) versions of his scenes of the American Revolution to decorate the walls of the US Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC. Trumbull studied in the London studio of Benjamin West and was heavily influenced by contemporary British painting, yet French art and culture were also influential, a relationship which has not been sufficiently studied. Trumbull travelled to France a number of times, beginning in 1785, when he met Jacques-Louis David, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Jean-Antoine Houdon and other important French artists. Trumbull’s friendship with the French Marquis de Lafayette was a strong one, and his correspondence with Lafayette contributed to Trumbull’s efforts to revive his project at a critical point when his efforts had stalled.[1]

This essay looks at the timeline, politics, and artistic parameters shaping French and American art focused on the events of the American Revolution. Paintings and works on paper from artists of both nationalities ranged from the documentary to the allegorical, with artists building on one another’s work. How connected was the art of these two nations who fought alongside one another against Britain? While there were several thematic and stylistic links between the two, French and American imagery was perhaps not as integrated and mutually influential as it could have been. For artists, the shifting politics and trauma of the French Revolution acted as a fissure, distancing Americans from French politics and the later events of the French Revolution. The two nations did find artistic commonalities later in the 1820s and ’30s as artists looked back at the events of the American Revolution. Artists recalled episodes and events of a generation before, modelling portraits on earlier life studies and in some cases imagining battle scenes afresh. Americans artists such as John Vanderlyn and Samuel F. B. Morse also found broader inspiration in French art and culture in this era, forging a path of emulation and study that later generations of Americans would follow.

For any artist commemorating the events of war, there tend to be two general approaches: to abstract and generalize ideals of patriotism, triumph, sacrifice and grit with allegorical imagery, or to render highly specific episodes, attempting to re-create the field of battle and the heat of the moment with life portraits of participants, details of costume and precise views of topography. Both approaches have strengths as well as shortcomings, and perhaps the more successful war imagery has combined the two styles. Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe (1770) for example, showed the dramatic battlefield death of a hero, representing a scene from recent history that combined modern dress with pathos in a highly staged battlefield scene, commemorating the 1759 Battle of Quebec in the French and Indian War. West’s painting was reproduced as an engraving, becoming the best-selling print of the eighteenth century, paving the way for a number of important and influential British paintings of contemporary history, many of which were battle scenes.[2]

French Imagery: Allegorical Visions of the American Revolution

When the American colonists voted to declare independence from Britain in July 1776, they lacked many of the tools needed to fight a war, including funds, a navy and supplies to equip their troops. The Continental Congress sent Silas Deane on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1776, later joined by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to solicit support from the French. As long-time enemies of the English, the French reacted with pleasure to the American victories at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, as well as the heavy British losses suffered at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill that June. The French saw in America the opportunity to avenge their humiliating defeat to the British in the Seven Years War. Louis XVI, advised by the Comte de Vergennes, agreed to sell arms and munitions to America and to give American privateers access to French ports, granting the Americans diplomatic status in their own right instead of treating them as British rebels. This assistance was essential to the American war effort and was further strengthened when France decided to fully enter the war in February 1778 after the American defeat of John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga.

France saw the young American republic as the first attempt to act on the ideals of the Enlightenment of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Given these ideological underpinnings, it is not surprising that a number of early French scenes of the American Revolution are allegorical, with French artists representing the hopes and ideals that America stood for. The Toulouse Royal Academy competition of 1784 took as its theme La Grande Révolution opérée dans le nouveau monde (The Great Revolution undertaken in the New World). One of the paintings for the competition, by an unknown French artist, Allegory of France Liberating America (fig. 1), shows France standing at the centre of the scene with a blue cape adorned with fleurs de lis, acting as an intermediary between America and Liberty and symbolically uniting the two. While America is often represented as a woman, here the young nation is a male Native American figure with a feathered headdress, while Liberty stands in a diaphanous white garment, holding the Phrygian bonnet in her left hand, an icon of freedom. Figures representing Victory, Peace, Commerce and Plenty stand nearby, offering their support, while various figures at left engage in trade and move goods, suggesting the continuation of economic prosperity and exchange with American Independence. The scene shows French interests in the war, expressing anti-English sentiment and an emphasis on favourable maritime trade, with France at the centre of the action.[3]

Fig. 1: Unknown, French, 18th century, Allegory of France Liberating America, 1784, oil on canvas, 1.35 × 1.86 m. Blérancourt, Musée Franco-Américain du Château de Blérancourt, MNB 91.9. / © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Blérancourt) / Gérard Blot

Another allegorical French scene representing American Independence with an emphasis on French support is a tapestry, America, from a set of The Four Continents (fig. 2), designed by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier in 1786 as part of a series depicting the four continents. Le Barbier, who had earlier depicted themes from the American Revolution, shows a scene that differs from conventional imagery of the four continents.[4] America, a young woman with a feather dress is guided by the Goddess of Liberty, while personifications of Prosperity and Peace sit amongst the clouds. France acts as America’s protector with a thunderbolt in hand, swooping down to attack Britannia, who cowers on the ground with her shield upraised in terror, her cannons disassembled and leopards looking up fearfully. At left a winged victory acting almost as a standard-bearer raises a medallion with the head of George Washington against a column. The landscape is tropical, a new world populated by palm trees, visibly different from the landscape of Europe.

Fig. 2: Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (designer), Workshop of De Menou (maker), America, from a set of The Four Continents, designed c. 1786, woven 1790–91, wool and silk tapestry, 3.658 × 4.572 m. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr and Mrs Claus von Bülow Gift, 1978, 1978.404.1. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This image celebrates American Independence, but emphasizes France’s role in fostering the fledgling nation. The figure of America holds a bow and has a quiver of arrows at her feet, but appears young and unstable, with the Goddess of Liberty holding centre stage as France advances on her behalf. Reliant on the assistance of France and figures such as Liberty, Prosperity and Peace, America’s victory over Britain seems the product of external forces. It is only natural that French artists would frame the conflict from their national perspective, emphasizing France’s strong military contributions and highlighting the differences between America’s youth and inexperience relative to France’s long history and firm sense of cultural and artistic identity. Indeed, America was a new nation, without a lot of symbols or allegorical imagery to call its own aside from the flag and the symbol of the bald eagle, which was only adopted in 1782, near the end of the war.

The transition from colony to nation was a challenging one, requiring new political structures as well as new imagery to inspire and signify unity in the new nation. Americans needed to co-opt and adapt allegorical symbols such as these to help establish a sense of nationhood and identity. Some of this European imagery was used by American artists, while other details were abandoned, particularly those that framed America as exotic and savage, such as the alligator and the prevalence of palm trees.

Fig. 3: Edward Savage, Liberty: In the Form of the Goddess of Youth, Giving Support to the Bald Eagle, 1796, stipple engraving printed in colour, 0.635 × 0.415 m. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1946.9.344. / Yale University Art Gallery

The American artist Edward Savage (1761–1817) first painted and then had a print published in 1796 of Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth, Giving Support to the Bald Eagle (fig. 3). It is thought that Savage was inspired to create this scene by the British artist William Hamilton’s 1791 image of Hebe Offering a cup to Zeus in the Form of an Eagle, but the figure has stronger kinship to the French figure of Liberty in the 1784 Toulouse Academy competition painting, sharing the same profile pose and position of her legs. Savage kept the white drapery, but added more clothing to cover his Liberty, in keeping with American ideals of propriety. The prominence of his figure’s nipples, however, reminds viewers of the woman’s body beneath the drapery and thus of the bare-breasted Liberty from the Toulouse competition painting. Edward Savage made an individual the focus of his scene, condensing multiple allegorical figures into a powerful single woman, symbolizing America, or Columbia, in the guise of a youthful Liberty. To clarify the identity and meaning of this central female figure, Savage placed the phrygian cap atop the American flag and the eagle descending to drink from her cup. She stands with Boston Harbor in the background as the British naval fleet departs in failure. Under her feet, symbols of monarchical tyranny are trampled, including a garter of a royal order, shackles and the key to the Bastille prison. Savage’s prints of Liberty were very popular and found a wide audience. This scene was copied in other media as well during the Early Republic, in needlework, watercolour, oil paintings and reverse glass paintings by Chinese artists.[5]

Military and Political Specificity in Images of the American Revolution

While allegorical images represented the broad ideals of American Independence, artists and viewers also sought to detail and document specific events within the American Revolution. The power of such imagery was evident when Paul Revere published an engraving of the Boston Massacre just a week after the episode, which occurred on 5 March 1770. As an item of political propaganda, the hand-coloured broadside was very effective, stoking anti-British sentiment, yet it was not factually accurate, showing an orderly line of soldiers firing, when in reality the scene was one of rioting and chaos.

There were few American artists on site during the American Revolution with the time and ability to document events as they were unfolding. Those who did, such as Paul Revere or the engraver Amos Doolittle working with the painter Ralph Earl, were participants or near witnesses to important events. Doolittle and Earl arrived at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts shortly after the April 1775 battle as part of a Connecticut militia, producing prints that were quickly disseminated to audiences keen for visual information.

John Trumbull served in the Revolution, but did not document the fight for independence as an artist until several years after the war’s conclusion. He came from a prominent Connecticut family (his father, Jonathan Trumbull, was governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784), and the young Trumbull was consequently given a position of note in the Continental Army, serving as second aide-de-camp to George Washington and also as deputy adjutant-general to General Horatio Gates. He attained the rank of colonel, but resigned in 1777 in protest after he was unable to resolve an error in the dating of his commission.[6]

Trumbull’s most notable military contributions may have been as a draughtsman. Drawing not for the public but for his military leaders, Trumbull plotted out topographical sketches and military maps used to plan defences and strategize on behalf of the Continental Army, such as the Fortifications and disposition of troops at Ticonderoga, 1776, showing the fort’s potential vulnerability to attack, and an artillery map of the New London Harbor with lines indicating the distance and position of protective cannon fire across the harbour. Trumbull was tremendously proud of his service and his military contributions, later painting a self-portrait emphasizing his sword and his palette, signifying that his life’s great work was in the service of his country as a soldier and as an artist.

Fig. 4: John Trumbull, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, oil on canvas, 0.625 ×0.94 m. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Trumbull Collection, 1832.2. / Yale University Art Gallery

After the war, John Trumbull returned to studying art and painting, working in Boston and then in London in the studio of Benjamin West. Given his family status and military service, Trumbull was well acquainted with the principal participants and events in the Revolution and was witness to the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, albeit it from a distance. This combination of experience, connections and training left Trumbull uniquely qualified to create a pictorial document of the American Revolution, a project that he likely undertook at Benjamin West’s suggestion.[7] The artist began by painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (fig. 4), two theatrical battle scenes from early in the war, each centred on a heroic death. Both reveal the influence of contemporary British history painting, specifically the work of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. With their fluid brushwork and dynamic diagonal compositions, Trumbull’s paintings of Bunker Hill and Quebec have been regarded as the most successful of the artist’s scenes of the American Revolution, yet they do not document military victories (and were therefore not part of the artist’s later commission for the US Capitol Rotunda). Instead the episodes celebrate valour, bravery and the notion of chivalry on the battlefield, which transcended boundaries of nationality and political allegiance.

French Influence: Trumbull and Vanderlyn

In addition to British history painting, John Trumbull was influenced by French painting, visiting Paris in early 1796, where he saw the Louvre with Jacques-Louis David, toured many great private collections of art with Houdon, and participated in the gatherings of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Trumbull wrote that he had met “all the principal artists and connoisseurs in Paris”.[8] After seeing David’s great Oath of the Horatii at the Louvre on 9 August 1786, Trumbull may have incorporated elements of it into his The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec. Trumbull’s composition for Quebec was likely advanced by the time he visited Paris in 1786, however, a visit motivated in part by his hope of finding an engraver for it and for Bunker Hill. In Quebec, the three riflemen on the left, who are dressed in buckskin as trappers or Native Americans, react in horror and astonishment to the death of General Montgomery from British cannon fire. The group recalls the alignment of the three Horatii brothers in David’s Oath of the Horatii. Trumbull wrote that it was “a story well-told, drawing … good,” but he found the colouring cold. He liked David’s Belisarius Receiving Alms (Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts) better, perhaps because the subject was one that Trumbull had painted nine years before. The day after Trumbull’s visit, David returned the favour and visited the American artist, studying his Bunker Hill and Quebec. After the visit, Trumbull wrote that he feared David’s commendation was “too much dictated by politeness”.[9]

It was in Paris that Trumbull composed one of his best-known scenes, the Declaration of Independence (fig. 5), working in 1786 under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson. The painting imagines a symbolic moment in US history, the presentation of the approved draft of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on 4 July 1776. Jefferson holds the document, standing with John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin, members of the drafting committee. The scene condenses events that occurred over several days and includes mostly life portraits, including signatories as well as several men who were opposed to the declaration. Trumbull may have been influenced by François Godefroy’s engraving after Le Barbier of the First Assembly of Congress (1782), but the print shows a more intimate, casual grouping, while Trumbull’s is formal and ordered.[10]

Fig. 5: John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1786–1820, oil on canvas, 0.53 × 0.787 m. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Trumbull Collection, 1832.3. / Yale Art Gallery

Like many Americans, John Trumbull initially supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American struggle, offering a means of spreading political freedom across the Atlantic. Trumbull made a short visit to France in the summer of 1789, sympathetic to the cause and interested in documenting the French Revolution. The artist wrote to his brother Jonathan about wanting to commemorate it in paint: “I conceiv’d that the taking of the Bastille & the King’s visit to Paris were proper subjects for painting: I found them so: I have … secured such materials as will enable [me] to paint the two Subjects hereafter.”[11] But although he sympathized with Jefferson and the French republican philosophes, the violence of the French Revolution and shifting politics turned his opinion by 1793, and his plans to commemorate the French conflict fizzled.[12]

Once the terror had faded from recent memory and subsequent governments brought more stability, however, other American artists began seeking artistic instruction and inspiration in France. Following the French Revolution, John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) was the first American artist to study in Paris rather than in London, where Benjamin West’s studio was a lure for many Americans. With the support of Aaron Burr, Vanderlyn was sent to Paris in 1796, studying at the École spéciale de peinture et de sculpture under Francois-André Vincent for five years. After a trip home to America, Vanderlyn returned to Paris several times over the next decade. In addition to studying history painting and painting portraits in France, Vanderlyn was intrigued by the recent invention of the panorama and painted his own ambitious panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (1814–19), so that American spectators might see and experience in a dynamic fashion the splendours of the French palace and grounds, where one of the peace treaties was signed at the end of the American Revolution.[13]

Second Wave of French and American Art of the Revolution

John Vanderlyn exhibited his panorama of Versailles in America at his New York City Rotunda (built in 1818), periodically touring it and other panoramas he had purchased for exhibit, but without great profit, due in part to Vanderlyn’s poor business skills. Around 1825, the triumphal return tour of the Marquis de Lafayette to America to mark the nearly fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, offered Vanderlyn another chance to celebrate France. The tour was an occasion of tremendous fanfare and celebration, providing an opportunity for Americans to celebrate Lafayette and the French role in the Revolution. Lafayette’s relative youth at the time of the Revolution made him one of the few surviving heroes still hale and hearty in 1825. Painting a scene of Washington and Lafayette at the 1777 Battle of Brandywine (fig. 6), Vanderlyn commemorated one of Lafayette’s most memorable contributions to the war. Lafayette was wounded, yet still helped organize and rally the American retreat to Chester, Pennsylvania, saving many patriot lives in the process. With Lafayette in profile, Vanderlyn’s painting places greater focus on the figure of George Washington, America’s greatest hero, rendered in a precise yet rather static view on horseback.

Fig. 6: John Vanderlyn, George Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, c. 1825, oil on canvas, 1.05 × 1.43 m. Tulsa, Oaklahoma, Gilcrease Museum, gift of Thomas Gilcrease to City of Tulsa, 1955, 0126.1018 / Gilcrease Museum

John Trumbull, meanwhile, had all but given up on his Revolutionary series for a number of years due to a lack of support. He had turned to other pursuits, including diplomatic and business interests in addition to painting portraits. But with the War of 1812 and a subsequent outpouring of nationalist enthusiasm, Trumbull saw an opportunity to resurrect his stalled painting project. He called on his political allies in Congress to support a commission to decorate government buildings with his scenes from the Revolution. The British had attacked Washington DC and burned many government buildings in the War of 1812. Capitalizing on the potent symbolism of the rebuilding project, Trumbull wrote to his old friend Thomas Jefferson in December 1816, arguing that his painting of the Declaration of Independence, “with portraits of those eminent patriots & statesmen who then laid the foundation of our Nation, will be a proper ornament for the Hall of the Senate or Representatives, as well as the military pictures with portraits of those Heroes who either cemented that foundation with their blood, or lived to aid in the Superstructure”.[14]

Trumbull’s networking with powerful friends helped his cause, and Congress authorized $32,000 to commission Trumbull to paint four scenes to decorate the US Capitol Rotunda, including the Declaration, the Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and the Resignation of Washington. In the autumn of 1818 and the winter of 1819, Trumbull exhibited the newly painted 12 × 18 foot (3.66 × 5.48 metres) version of the Declaration in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, en route to Washington, DC. Although problematic, it was a ground-breaking tour, the first systematic, multi-city exhibition of a history painting in America.[15]

What concerned some vocal early viewers was the artist’s interpretation of history – who Trumbull had included and excluded from his rendering of one of the most symbolically important moments in the nation’s young history. The Rotunda painting was an enlargement of a smaller composition painted mostly in the late 1780s and early 1790s, and it reflected a version of history that was out of sync at the time of the exhibition tour. By 1818–19, the popular understanding of this historical moment favoured the evidence of the signatures on the document of the Declaration of Independence itself, not the more nuanced, first-hand vision of events told to Trumbull in 1786 by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. A critic, “Detector”, wrote, “it may be a very pretty picture, but it is certainly no representation of the Declaration of Independence. The errors in point of fact with which it abounds, ought to exclude it from the walls of the capitol.” The negative review was widely circulated, but Trumbull utilized the same newspaper to defend his painting. “Who were the men actually present on the 4th of July?” Trumbull wrote, “The Journals of Congress are silent, – it would be dangerous to trust the memory of any one.” Although he had taken the signed Declaration as a general guide, Trumbull observed that “there were on that instrument the names of several gentlemen who were not actually present on the 4th of July, and also, that several gentlemen were there who never subscribed their names”.[16] The painting occupied uncertain middle ground, functioning as a visual illustration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, yet advancing claims of its own regarding who should and should not be associated with the document. By exhibiting the Declaration of Independence to thousands of viewers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Trumbull initiated new dialogue about the complexity of the Revolutionary era.

Once Trumbull had delivered the Declaration to Washington in 1819, the painter began working on the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (fig. 7), the next most significant painting for the US Capitol Rotunda. The Battle of Yorktown was the most important battle of the American Revolution and it marked the war’s final military event on US soil. Because of this prominence, Yorktown became the subject of numerous French and American artistic representations. Commanding 17,000 French and American troops, George Washington attacked British troops led by General Cornwallis stationed at Yorktown, Virginia, and by 28 September 1781, the British were surrounded, with the French navy blocking Cornwallis’s escape by sea. After three weeks of constant bombardment, Cornwallis finally surrendered, essentially ending the war. At the time of the official surrender, 18 October 1781, Cornwallis feigned illness, sending his second in command, Charles O’Hara in his stead to relinquish his sword.[17]

Fig. 7: John Trumbull, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, 1787–c. 1828, oil on canvas, 0.533 × 0.778 cm. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Trumbull Collection, 1832.4. / Yale University Art Gallery

For his painting of the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, begun in the 1780s, Trumbull had returned to Paris in late 1787 to paint portraits from life of Rochambeau, Lafayette and other French officers who were present at the event. For Trumbull it was essential that the portraits in these historical scenes be as accurate as possible. An existing sketch of one of the French officers, Count Deuxponts, includes careful notes about the French uniform, including colour notations. Trumbull struggled with the composition for Yorktown, and an early painted study for the scene shows Cornwallis’s assistant, General Charles O’Hara, from the rear. French forces stand at left, with General Rochambeau partially sketched on his horse, as American troops gather at right, with Washington standing close to the centre background. In the finished composition, Trumbull rectified O’Hara’s awkward placement so that the British officer faces forward, leading the defeated British forces between the lines of victors.

Trumbull’s finished scene is technically quite accurate, but it is not tremendously dynamic. Art historian Lauren Jacks Gamble has recently suggested that this tendency to paint orderly and static rows of participants – a mode that seems visually stiff and unimaginative – may be the result of Trumbull’s mapping mindset, a mode established early in the war. “Construing the canvas as analogous to the field of combat,” she writes, “Trumbull’s rigorous formations in paint were a way of imposing rational order on the American body politic.” This cartographic outlook demanded order and mirrored the tendency of infantry tactics to regulate movement and behaviour.[18]

While Trumbull’s rendering of the surrender is a flat scene that emphasizes rows of participants receding into the distance, a French version of the surrender at Yorktown frames the events differently. An 1819 print The British Surrendering their Arms to General Washington after the Defeat at York Town (fig. 8), published by Janner, Vallance, Keaerny & Co. after a drawing by John Francis Renault (supposedly an eyewitness to the battle), does not meddle with details and particulars. Although Cornwallis was not technically present to acknowledge his own defeat, the print imagines that he was. Cornwallis stands at right, giving up his sword to an assembled group of French and American officers, with Washington at left. Rather than Trumbull’s split composition with two lines of French and American officers, this scene shows a single group, combining the victors in a fictive landscape. The foreground iterates the Surrender at Yorktown in broad strokes, while the background features allegorical figures representing justice, liberty, and prosperity making this a hybrid type of war art.

Fig. 8: The British Surrendering their Arms to General Washington after the Defeat at York Town in Virginia, October 1781, drawn by John Francis Renault; engraved by Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. and Wm. Allen, c. 28 January 1819. Washington, DC, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 20540 USA (Repr. N.: LC-DIG-pga-02820). / Library of Congress

For print audiences, the victory at the Battle of Yorktown was an important event, and visualizing it enabled the French to recall and commemorate their broader contributions to the American Revolution, with Yorktown standing in for the larger war effort. Memory of this proud occasion of international cooperation and victory offered a means of processing or eliding some more painful moments in recent French history. This was particularly true for Auguste Couder’s huge painting The Siege of Yorktown (fig. 9), commissioned at a later moment under changed political circumstances.

Fig. 9: Auguste Couder, The Siege of Yorktown, 17 October 1781, 1836, oil on canvas, 4.65 × 5.43 m. Versailles, Château de Versailles, MV 2747. / © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / Christophe Fouin

Auguste Couder (1789–1873), a student of both Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Baptiste Regnault, was commissioned by Louis-Philippe to paint several triumphal battle scenes for the Galeries Historiques at Versailles. Devised by Louis-Philippe in the 1830s to maintain his legacy as a leader of the people and to transform a segment of Versailles from a symbol of Ancien Régime royal excess to a museum of French history, its purpose was to add his legacy to that of previous rulers.

Louis-Philippe (1773–1850) was crowned the king of the French in 1830 after the July Revolution ousted the increasingly repressive Charles X from the throne. During the July Monarchy, Louis-Philippe’s subsequent reign, the king commissioned numerous works of art to help consolidate and legitimize his authority and rule, most notably his creation of the Gallery of Battles at the Palace of Versailles, open in 1837 to celebrate the most important military events in France’s history. Wanting to connect the Revolution of 1830 with the sentiments and ideals of 1789, Louis-Philippe was keen to celebrate France’s role in the American Revolution. In previous decades several large battle paintings at Versailles had been commissioned by Napoleon and by the Bourbon Restoration government. To these Louis-Philippe added other scenes, commissioning Horace Vernet and Auguste Couder to paint several scenes for the Galeries Historiques at Versailles, most notably the Siege of Yorktown.[19]

Couder envisioned a moment from the siege of Yorktown preparatory to the final battle, rather than its formal conclusion, as Trumbull had done.[20] The scene shows a sense of motion, activity and purpose, as well as the easy camaraderie between American and French leaders, who walk nearly side by side emerging from their tented military headquarters. Couder places Rochambeau at the painting’s centre, gesturing to his right, while Washington stands next to him, reviewing or dictating plans that an assistant marks on a map. Although Washington presents a taller figure, it is Rochambeau who commands attention, both from the viewer and from figures within the painting. This emphasis on French leadership reveals the nationality of the artist and the interests behind the commission. At left a mounted French hussar may be a courier or the Duc de Lauzun. To represent a scene of 1781 fifty years later, Couder was not able to take life portraits of participants, but studied earlier life portraits by other artists to make the painting as true to history as possible. Couder’s rendering of the French uniforms is quite accurate, but the uniform worn by George Washington shows a style worn after the date depicted. Such details remind us that historical accuracy could be extremely difficult for artists to achieve, particularly when dealing with multiple nationalities. As John Trumbull experienced, history itself could be contested, with many claiming authority for varying political ends. For Couder and Trumbull alike, their history paintings were commissioned so that the past could cement and celebrate the present.

American artists continued to paint and recall the pivotal events of the American Revolution as they vied for possible government commissions in the 1820s and 1830s. Four empty niches for paintings remained in the US Capitol Rotunda, waiting to be filled with patriotic art. John Trumbull’s generous Rotunda commission for four large scenes from the American Revolution in late 1817 left many painters hopeful that they might be honoured with a similar opportunity, and Trumbull himself pushed hard to be awarded a second commission, despite his advancing age.

Thomas Sully had the Rotunda in mind when he painted the Passage of the Delaware (1819), a painting that had started out as an 8 × 10 foot (2.43 × 3.04 metres) historical portrait of George Washington for the State of North Carolina, but was enlarged by the artist to 12 × 18 feet (3.66 × 5.48 metres), precisely the size of the Rotunda niches, inspired by Trumbull’s success in exhibiting his Declaration of Independence on tour. Sully likewise toured his scene of Washington crossing the Delaware, hopeful that it might demonstrate his worthiness for a Rotunda commission. Weary of art patronage and its complications, however, Congress stalled in filling the additional blank Rotunda niches.

Samuel F. B. Morse, president and recent co-founder of the National Academy of Design, New York, in 1825–26, also championed for a Rotunda commission but was unsuccessful. Like Sully and others, Morse created a large history painting for public exhibition, hoping to increase his reputation and to advance American knowledge and appreciation for the arts in the process. After a trip abroad, Morse looked to France and the rich collection of old masters held at the Louvre for inspiration. Morse painted Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), detailing a view of the Salon Carré rendered not as it actually looked, but imaginatively curated, with Morse’s favourite treasures reproduced together, copied in miniature in a single large painting for American audiences to study. Morse rendered himself in the foreground in a teaching mode, positioned as an intermediary between European art of the past and American art of the future.[21] Thus framed, Morse’s vision of the arts and education is not so different from French and American renderings of the War of Independence, albeit without battle scenes or overt allegorical figures. Staying in the realm of culture, Morse suggests America’s debt to France, aware that American viewers would have the Marquis de Lafayette’s recent visit as a reminder of France’s support for American Independence. Much had transpired since the American Revolution, however, and the message of the painting is multivalent, emphasizing democratic access to the arts.


  1. Jaffe 1975, pp. 188–189.
  2. For a discussion of the popularity of West’s painting in the context of public exhibitions, see Bätschmann 1997, pp. 29–36.See Bajou, “The Celebration of the Treaty of 1783”, in Bajou 2016, pp. 154–58.
  3. See Stanton 1989, pp. 255–74.
  4. On Savage, see Fischer 2005, pp. 236–37.
  5. See Cooper, “John Trumbull: A Life”, in Cooper 1982, p. 4.
  6. Jules David Prown, “John Trumbull as History Painter”, in Cooper 1982, pp. 22–41.
  7. John Trumbull to David Trumbull, 31 January 1786, John Trumbull papers, Connecticut Historical Society
  8. Trumbull 1841, p. 111. On David’s influence, see Prown in Cooper 1982, pp. 33–35.
  9. Stanton 1989, pp. 255–56.
  10. John Trumbull to Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., 7 September 1789, John Trumbull papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Conn., quoted in Cooper 1982, p. 10.
  11. See Jaffe 1975, pp. 167–70.
  12. Avery and Fodera 1988.
  13. John Trumbull to Thomas Jefferson, 26 December 1816. John Trumbull papers, MS 506, series I, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Conn.
  14. See Pohrt 2013, pp. 19–79.
  15. “Detector”, New-York Daily Advertiser, 8 October 1818, p. 2; Trumbull, New-York Daily Advertiser, 23 October 1818.
  16. See Green 2005.
  17. Gamble 2015.
  18. See “The Siege of Yorktown by Auguste Couder”, in Bajou 2016, pp. 186–89.
  19. Pascale Méker, “Couder, Auguste”, in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press, (accessed by subscription 2 May 2017).
  20. Brownlee 2014.


Avery Kevin J. and Fodera Peter L., 1988, John Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bätschmann Oskar, 1997, The Artist in the Modern World: The Conflict between Market and Self-Expression, Cologne: DuMont Burchverlag.

Bajou Valérie (ed.), 2016, Versailles and the American Revolution, exh. catalogue (Château de Versailles, 5 July–17 October 2016), Versailles-Montreuil: Château de Versailles-Gourcuff Gradenigo.

Brownlee Peter John (ed.), 2014, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention, Chicago (IL): Terra Foundation for American Art.

Cooper Helen (ed.), 1982, John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery.

Crow Thomas E., 1985, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century, Paris, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Crow Thomas, 1995, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Fischer David Hackett, 2005, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Gamble Lauren Jacks, 2015, “Art-Artillery. Mapping the Military Logic of John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War Paintings”, American Art Journal, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 10–18.

Green Jerome A., 2005, The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781, New York: Savas Beatie.

Jaffe Irma, 1975, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution, New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Pohrt Tanya, 2013, “Touring Pictures: The Exhibition of American History Paintings in the Early Republic”, PhD thesis, University of Delaware.

Stanton Edith, 1989, “Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier and Two Revolutions”, Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 24, pp. 255–74. DOI : 10.2307/1512884.

Trumbull John, 1841, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull, from 1756 to 1841, New York and London: Wiley and Putnam.

Originally published by Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles (10.12.2017) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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