Friday, September 21, 2012

Trumbull's Old Senate Chamber

Sketches of the interior of the Old Senate Chamber, By John Trumbull.
Graphite on paper, c. 1822
Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Associates in Fine Arts, 1938.286a &b

The above images, sketched by John Trumbull ca. 1822, are the earliest known depictions of the Old Senate Chamber. These sketches were drafted on-site in preparation to fulfill his 1817 commission from the U.S. Congress to paint  four large scenes of pivotal moments before, during and after the Revolutionary War to hang in the Capitol Rotunda. This series includes, Declaration of Independence (1818), Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820), Surrender of General Burgoyne (1821), and General George Washington Resigning His Commission (1824).

Despite having visited the Old Senate Chamber in 1822, Trumbull's finished painting reflects several artistic liberties taken in the depiction of the Chamber and the individuals present during the ceremony. At first glance, the most noticeable alteration of the space is the reversed view of the room. A simpler background of only two doors, as opposed to four windows, emphasizes Washington and reflects a focal light on the subject.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull, 1824.
 U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

When comparing Trumbull's initial sketch and the completed work, one will notice that Trumbull deliberately omitted the mantel and large portrait above it from the chimney breast, and simplified the wall and gallery entablature- most likely due to the detailed nature of carved plaster. And upon closer examination it is evident that he also left out the windows flanking the niche and the president's dais. 

To accurately depict the individuals present, Trumbull copied earlier miniatures he painted, studied portraits by other artists, and contacted Congress to ask for portraits of their predecessors. The depiction of George Washington was based on portraits of the General by Trumbull during his services as an officer and as General Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. The Journal of Congress supplied Trumbull with the names of everyone present during the ceremony on December 23, 1783, but Trumbull still included James Madison, Martha Washington, and her grandchildren who appear in the gallery.

Like Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, this painting features a similar composition of characters with figures standing and seated in the background and the central action being the transfer of documents, thus reinforcing the democratic ideal shared between these two works of art. Additionally, Trumbull rendered both legislative chambers and furnishings in a similar fashion, especially the mahogany armchairs which seems to have been copied from Declaration. The inclusion of a draped cloak over Washington's chair is reminiscent of a king's robe over a throne, thus symbolizing Washington's retirement from rule and establishing civilian authority over the military.

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