Famous painting blurs the line between truth and fabrication

Sep 17, 2008 at 2:12 am

July 4, 1776. 

Every American knows the meaning of that date — it provides vacation and is celebrated with fireworks. There’s also the visual attached to our Independence Day, based on John Trumbull’s iconic painting of a group of men standing around with a document proclaiming our independence from Great Britain. 

Turns out the painting is a bit, shall we say, fabricated. 

Trumbull’s “The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” is a gem of an early American painting, the one he considered to be his most important. Its home is in the esteemed collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn. The Yale painting is the original, and a life-size version was later painted in the Capitol. He gave the smaller version to Yale in 1832, along with seven other Revolutionary War images.

We now have the chance to see the original Trumbull painting, alongside more than 200 pieces from Yale’s collection at the Speed Art Museum. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” features many works from 1660-1900. It includes important paintings by early American artists such as Paul Revere (You didn’t know he was an artist?), Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Eakins. It also features the oldest pair of American candlesticks in existence.

But back to our history lesson. The setting is the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Trumbull placed the focus on the five men in the drafting committee, a group that included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Surrounding them is the rest of the Continental Congress, including John Hancock, Congress president. 

Historian David McCullough believes the scene may actually be closer to the presentation of Jefferson’s first draft on June 28. Congress did not begin signing the document until Aug. 2. Those who were not present signed it over the next few months, although one person didn’t get around to putting his “John Hancock” on it until the following year. There was never a grand, formal “declaration.”

Sometimes the truth is too mundane. Turns out the idea for the painting came from discussions Trumbull had with Jefferson in 1786. One of the first details jettisoned was the blandness of the room. What was important to Trumbull were the faces. He worked to get an accurate likeness for the 48 men portrayed (56 people actually signed the document). 

Do the inaccuracies matter? It’s like getting your knowledge of history from the movies. If you are a stickler for details, this painting is not for you. Trumbull felt the image was more important for its symbolic portrayal of our quest to be a nation. Pride and artistic expression trumped accuracy. 

A copy of the Declaration of Independence is on view at the show; Jeffersonville’s Remnant Trust loaned it to the museum. Also on display is “American Art at the Speed,” which features highlights from the museum’s American art collection. 

“The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” is an oil on canvas by John Trumbull
“The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” is an oil on canvas by John Trumbull

‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the
Yale University Art Gallery’

Through Jan. 4

Speed Art Museum

2035 S. Third St.



$15 ($7 members)