Statement of Purpose
The purpose of this paper is to take an in-depth look some of the works of art in the capital. This includes examining and honoring the collective past, and portraying a deeper significance to the visual records. The information used in this paper is referenced from the art works that are displayed on the website of the Architect of the Capitol. At some points in the paper, I highlight the way art has be employed to portray historical events and impart a message when viewed in the context of the era in which it was created. I also show connections between some of the images I am discussing and the historical events at the time in which they were created.
Part I Historic Rotunda Paintings
Baptism of Pocahontas Painted by John Gadsby Chapman
This painting was commissioned in 1837, and Pocahontas, a native American lady, was chosen as the subject. It was installed in the capital in November 1840. The historical context of this painting is to show the religious event in which a prestigious Algonkian chief Powhatan’s daughter (Pocahontas), was re-named Rebecca when she was baptized at an Anglican church. It also highlights Pocahonta’s magnetism as a US cultural icon as she is understood to be the first native Christian convert within the English colonies. This event helped to set up a peaceful relationship between the Tidewater tribes and the colonists. Events that was occurring at the time of this painting included the outset of native converts to Christianity, and American’s struggle with its national self-image in light of the native American Indians; and to that end, the picture portrays “a flattering treatment of the “Indian Problem”2
The connections between content and context are clearly presented as viewers can easily see what is taking place in the church. I believe that a modern viewer can understand the message that Chapman is trying to get across by showing this unique event in American history, and that he has been successful in communicating its contextual influences because what is happening in the scene is quite clear. Both Pocahontas herself and the minister who is officiating, stand out very clearly due to the light which is shining on them and the bright clothes that they are wearing.
Declaration of Independence, Painted by John Trumbull
This painting represents the first of four scenes depicting the revolutionary period. It was commissioned in 1817 by the US Congress and hung in the Capitol during the first part of 1819.3
1.Architect of the Capital (n.d.). 2. X-Roads Virginia (n.d.). “Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America.” 3. Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “Declaration of Independence.”
The historical value of this painting relates to it being a human document, in that it conserves the portraits of forty-eight people who were associated with the biggest event (next to the Magna Carta), in the history of the world. Trumbull’s depiction of these audacious gentlemen, who were the founders of the surge to give all US citizens freedom, is of outstanding sentimental reverence. The event that was occurring was not “The Submission of the Declaration…” “Congress Adopting the Declaration” nor “The Signing of the Declaration.” It is “Declaration of Independence” and was meant by Trumbull “to preserve the resemblance of the men who were the authors of this memorable act”4 The “general guide” depicted in this painting was the original act in which he wanted to conserve for posterity any form of likenesses that he could muster from the men involved in this gigantic feat.4
I believe that the connections between content and context are quite clear, as the painting depicts the signatories and the documentation. I also think that the artist is successful in communicating the contextual influences as he is showing the correct setting and players, and that as such, the message is easy to understand for a modern viewer.
General George Washington Resigning His Commission, painted by John Trumbull
This painting represents the setting at the Maryland State House, Annapolis, on December 23, 1783. It marks a historic day when the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, resigned from his post. It was commissioned in 1822, and hung in the Capitol in 1826. The historical significance and context of this painting relates to a basic principle of American democracy, as at that time, civilian command over the military was being instigated.5
I think that the connections between content and context are clearly presented due to the illuminated light going into the room, where Washington, who is attired in military uniform, can be clearly seen standing in front of Thomas Jefferson and the other delegates, and facing Thomas Mifflin, the Continental Congress’s president. Also, the chair which is vacant and covered by a cloak is symbolic of Washington’s retirement from his powerful position. I also feel that Trumbull is successful in communicating contextual influences as what is taking place is very clear. Because of this clarity and the historical setting at the Maryland State House, along with the action of Washington and the audience around him, the message that Trumbull is aiming to convey is easy to understand for a modern viewer.
Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull
This painting represents General Burgoyne being ready and willing to give up his sword to US General, Horatio Gates. It was commissioned in 1821, and hung in the Capitol in 1826. The historical context of this painting is to show the 1977 battle period between September and October, when out of respect for Burgoyne, Gates, rejected taking his sword, and generously gave a cordial reception to Burgoyne by showing him to the tent to have something to drink. The historical event that was occurring at the time of this painting is the change during the American Revolution which stopped the British from separating New England from the other colonies, and called upon active French troops to help America. The connections between content and context are clearly presented by the scene in which the army of Burgoyne and its reinforcements from Germany were led to the Quartermaster-General’s, Colonel Lewes’ camp as he heads there on his horse. Trumbull depicts peace in his scene, and the weapons are not in use. I believe that he is successful in communicating the contextual influences as it is clearly a scenario of peace, and not of conflict, and one in which the enemy is extended a courtesy. I do not feel that the message is too difficult to understand for a modern viewer because everything is depicted in a very straightforward manner.6
Hall of Governors (n.d.). “George Clinton.” 5. Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “General George Washington Resigning His Commission.” 6. Architect of the Capitol (n.d.). “Surrender of General Burgoyne.”
Part II: The National Statuary Hall Collection
Robert R. Livingston Representing New York
Livingston was born into a powerful and family in 1746 in New York City, and was a diplomat, lawyer, and politician. He began work as a lawyer prior to becoming a chancellor, diplomat and politician for New York state. Most importantly, he was one of the United State’s Founding Fathers who assisted in the drawing up of the Declaration of Independence, and managed George Washington’s oath of office to become president in 1789. In 1833 he died at 66 years of age in Clermont, New York. Livingston was a state of New York representative within the Continental Congress, and throughout the period of the Second Continental Congress, in 1776, he and his fellow committee colleagues drafted the Declaration of Independence. These fellow members were: Roger Sherman, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, prior to the document being signed, Livingston was asked away from congress. Livingston also assisted in drawing up New York’s new state constitution in 1777; after which he went on to become state chancellor: a post which made him New York’s highest ranking judicial official. Livingston spent a total of 24 years in this office8
From my perspective, I think that Robert R. Livingston is a very fitting representative of New York state because he was one of the United State’s Founding Fathers who assisted in the drawing up of the Declaration of Independence, and because he also helped to set up New York’s new state constitution, and was New York’s state chancellor for a period of 24 years. He is part a big part of America’s history.
7. Architect of the Capitol (n.d.). “Robert R. Livingston.” 8. Biography (2016). “Robert R. Livingstone Biography.”
George Clinton Who is Representing New York
George Clinton (1739–1812), is renowned for being the first governor of New York. He held the position for in excess of 21 years, which was more than any other head executive in the history of the state. Always regarded as highly patriotic, Clinton, who was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, also served during the Revolutionary War in the position of
brigadier general, when he defended New York. Governor Clinton also served under two presidents: James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, after he was given the post of the first elected vice president in 1804. Clinton worked to establish various policies to protect New York State against the escalating demands that were being requested by outsiders. This was the era when Clinton’s policies made great changes to New York, and because of this, those against him referred to his leadership as Clintonianism, and referred to New York as the Great Empire State.
And when he was commissioned to the post of brigadier general by the New York Provincial Congress at the end of 1775, he played a large role in staving off the British attack and defending the Hudson River’s highlands. He stretched an enormous chain across the river and constructed a couple of forts to prevent the New York City British forces from sailing towards the north.10
In my view, I think that George Clinton is a very apt representative of New York state. Not only was he the first governor of New York for 21 years, he was also a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, helped to defend New York during the Revolutionary War when he was Brigadier General, and established policies to make sure New York would be protected.
9. Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “George Clinton.”10. Hall of Governors (n.d.). “George Clinton.”
- American Revolution (n.d.). “The Declaration of Independence.” Available
- Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “Historic Rotunda Paintings.” Available
- Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “Declaration of Independence.” Available
- Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “General George Washington Resigning His Commission.”
- Available https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/general-george-washington- resigning-his-commission
- Architect of the Capital (n.d.). “George Clinton.” Available https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-
- Architect of the Capitol (n.d.). “Surrender of General Burgoyne.” Available
- Architect of the Capitol (n.d.). “Robert R. Livingston”. Available https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/national-statuary-hall-collection/robert-r-livingston
- Biography (2016). “Robert R. Livingstone Biography.” Available
- Hall of Governors (n.d.). “George Clinton.” Available
- X-Roads Virginia (n.d.). “Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America.”