Oil on canvas
12' x 18'
1818; placed 1826
This painting depicts the moment on June 28, 1776, when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress. The document stated the principles for which the Revolutionary War was being fought and which remain fundamental to the nation. Less than a week later, on July 4, 1776, the colonial delegates signed the Declaration, a milestone in American history.
In the central group in the painting, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, is shown placing the document before John Hancock, president of the Congress. With him stand the other members of the committee that created the draft: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin. This event occurred in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, in Philadelphia.
This is the first completed painting of four Revolutionary-era scenes that the U.S. Congress commissioned from John Trumbull (1756–1843) in 1817. It is an enlarged version of a smaller painting (approximately 21 inches by 31 inches) that the artist had created as part of a series to document the events of the American revolution.
When Trumbull was planning the smaller painting in 1786, he decided not to attempt a wholly accurate rendering of the scene; rather, he made his goal the preservation of the images of the Nation’s founders. He excluded those for whom no authoritative image could be found or created, and he included delegates who were not in attendance at the time of the event. In all, 47 individuals (42 of the 56 signers and 5 other patriots) are depicted, all painted from life or life portraits. Some of the room’s architectural features (e.g., the number and placement of doors and windows) differ from historical fact, having been based on an inaccurate sketch that Thomas Jefferson produced from memory in Paris. Trumbull also painted more elegant furniture, covered the windows with heavy draperies rather than venetian blinds, and decorated the room’s rear wall with captured British military flags, believing that such trophies were probably displayed there. The exhibition of this small painting (now owned by the Yale University art gallery) was instrumental in securing for the 61-year-old artist a commission to create monumental paintings for the Capitol.
Trumbull created the enlarged painting for the Rotunda between August 1817 and September 1818. On October 5, 1818, the painting was put on public view at the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York. Over the next four months, he exhibited it in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; it was in the Capitol early in 1819 and was displayed or stored in various rooms until 1826, when it and Trumbull’s other three paintings were installed in the Rotunda.
Declaration of Independence balances the last of Trumbull’s Rotunda paintings, General George Washington Resigning His Commission. The two paintings are similar in composition, with figures seated and standing in the background. The central action in each is the presentation of papers: here, by Thomas Jefferson; in Washington Resigning, by George Washington. Both scenes take place in the chambers of a civilian legislature, and Trumbull’s use of similar chairs in the two paintings subtly reinforces their relationship.
Trumbull performed the first cleaning and restoration of his Rotunda paintings in 1828, applying wax to their backs to protect them from dampness and cleaning and re-varnishing their surfaces. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the painting was cleaned, restored, varnished, and relined. All of the Rotunda paintings were most recently cleaned in 2008.
An 1820 engraving of Declaration of Independence by Asher B. Durand, who would later become a renowned landscape painter, helped to make it Trumbull’s most famous painting. It is pictured on the reverse of the two-dollar bill and has appeared on U. S. postage stamps: a 24-cent stamp in the series of 1869 and two sets of bicentennial stamps in 1976 (a sheet of five 18-cent stamps and a strip of four 13-cent stamps).
John Trumbull was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, on June 6, 1756. His father, Jonathan Trumbull, was later Governor of Connecticut (1769–1784). John entered Harvard College in 1771 and graduated in 1773. He created numerous sketches of significant people and places, even during his service as an officer and General Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. Resigning his commission as colonel in 1777, he painted for two years and then went to England, where he studied under renowned history painter Benjamin West and at the Royal Academy of Arts. In London, Paris and New York City, he created scenes of the American Revolution and life portraits or sketches of many of the individuals who would appear in them. He also painted portraits of other notable persons and numerous religious scenes.
From 1794 to 1804, diplomatic postings in London interrupted his work, and his artistic skill suffered. However, he remained successful as a portrait painter, and exhibitions of his earlier canvases led to an 1817 commission for four large paintings to be placed in the Capitol Rotunda; these were installed in 1826, but he failed to secure a contract for additional Rotunda paintings. He returned to the religious subjects of his earlier career but fell on hard times. In 1831 he deeded many of his works to Yale College in exchange for a $1000.00 annuity. Trumbull died in New York City on November 10, 1843, and was interred beneath the art gallery at Yale that he designed. In 1867, his paintings and his remains were moved to the new art gallery (now Street Hall).