American History PaintersAlthough today, the genre is practically non-existent, up until the latter years of the nineteenth century, the highest level of prestige a painter could hope to attain was the exalted art of painting history. There were two main reasons for this. Perhaps the first and foremost was that governments, in their efforts at hero-making, self-promotion, and positively spinning recent events as well as making sure more distant history was written casting them in the best light, paid big money for painters to trumpet their accomplishments, whether in war or peace. And since the most dramatic events usually involved war, military history has always tended to dominate this type of painting. The second reason it was such a prestigious artistic calling is that it demanded so much of the artist. What the artist had to conjure up, for the most part, had to come from memories of those involved complemented by portraits of both the deceased and the survivors. Such work took a tremendous amount of time, research, imagination, insight, knowledge, drawing skill, painting experience, patience, and persistence on the part of the artist. I've been as guilty as any other modern day artist and writer in disparaging the pretentious role of history painting in art, but believe me, whatever the pompous propaganda faults we might find with this type of work, the history painter really earned his money.
In Europe, the national academies of art, which educated their best and brightest and gave their official stamp of approval to both artists and that which they produced, every year turned out dozens of extremely well-trained painters capable of creating the massive masterpieces of history illustration needed to feed the egos of the military and governmental powers with the deep pockets to support such work. At the same time, in the United States, there was just as much history - military and otherwise - to paint, but the problem was there were but a handful of artists, all trained in Europe, who could handle the demands of the genre. And moreover, the struggling new government had better things upon which to spend its meagre revenues. A man could be the best history painter in the world here and go broke for all his efforts.
Around 1780, shortly after the close of America's richest source of history begging to be painted, the "handful" of American painters capable of rising to the demands of this calling amounted to John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, and Benjamin West. West of course, while born in Pennsylvania, spent his working life as an artist in England, where the art of history painting was truly appreciated. He painted the American Revolution, but from a decidedly British point of view. His Battle of Bunker's Hill (1786) is an interesting example. However, West's greatest contribution to American history painting undoubtedly came in the form of his tutelage of the others--Trumbull, Stuart, Sully, and Copley. Of these however, Stuart was mostly too busy raking in easy money painting George Washingtons. Copley too preferred the relatively well-paid art of portraiture as compared to history, and when he did indulge in this more exalted effort, tended to prefer minor events such as shark encounters rather than those designed to lift the patriotic spirits of a fledgling nation. That leaves only Sully and Trumbull. Sully was also primarily a portrait painter, though his Passage of the Delaware, painted in 1819, is a passably accurate version of the heroic event. And though it's often been criticised as being overly dramatic, it's certainly not so to the degree that Emanuel Leutze indulged in some fifty years later in his much more famous Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze made Washington and his brave entourage look downright foolhardy.
By process of elimination, we're left with only John Trumbull. And what the others lacked both in skill and intestinal fortitude in pursuing this unappreciated artform in the early days of the American nation, Trumbull more than made up for. His Surrender of Burgoyne, begun as early as 1786 but not finished until about 1824, depicts the scene on October 16, 1777, the end of the turning-point battle of the American Revolution, as the British army, led by Burgoyne, laid down its arms at Saratoga, New York before the bedraggled forces of General Gates. The 38-year time span from the first preliminary sketches until the paint dried on the final work is evidence of the care and effort Trumbull exhibited in recreating this scene, right down to portraits of the participants, often copied from family heirloom miniatures or etched prints. And if even this seems a poor excuse for taking half a lifetime to complete a single painting, keep in mind that during part of this time, Trumbull was at work on an even bigger undertaking, his famous Declaration of Independence comprising some 48 portraits, often painted from life, dating from between 1789 and 1794. And at the same time too, during 1786-87 while in London studying with West, Trumbull also painted The Surrender of Cornwallis. And we wonder why no one paints history today. Who's got the time?
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 February 2001