Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
|Year||commissioned 1817; purchased 1819;
placed 1826 in the Rotunda
|Dimensions||365.76 cm × 548.64 cm (144 in × 216 in)|
|Location||U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., U.S.|
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence is a 12-by-18-foot oil-on-canvas painting in the United States Capitol Rotunda that depicts the presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress. It was based on a much smaller version of the same scene, presently held by the Yale University Art Gallery. Trumbull painted many of the figures in the picture from life and visited Independence Hall as well to depict the chamber where the Second Continental Congress met. The oil-on-canvas work was commissioned in 1817, purchased in 1819, and placed in the rotunda in 1826.
The painting is sometimes incorrectly described as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the painting actually shows the five-man drafting committee presenting their draft of the Declaration to the Congress, an event that took place on June 28, 1776, and not the signing of the document, which took place later.
The painting shows 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration; Trumbull originally intended to include all 56 signers, but was unable to obtain likenesses for all of them. He also decided to depict several participants in the debate who did not sign the document, including John Dickinson, who declined to sign. Trumbull also had no portrait of Benjamin Harrison V to work with; son Benjamin Harrison VI was said to have resembled his father, so he was painted instead. Because the Declaration was debated and signed over a period of time when membership in Congress changed, the men in the painting had never all been in the same room at the same time.
Thomas Jefferson seems to be stepping on the foot of John Adams in the painting, which many think is supposed to symbolize their relationship as political enemies. However, upon closer examination of the painting, it can be seen that their feet are merely close together. This part of the image was correctly depicted on the two-dollar bill version.
There were 14 signers of the Declaration who did not appear in the painting:
- Matthew Thornton (New Hampshire)
- John Hart (New Jersey)
- John Morton (Pennsylvania)
- James Smith (Pennsylvania)
- George Taylor (Pennsylvania)
- George Ross (Pennsylvania)
- Caesar Rodney (Delaware)
- Thomas Stone (Maryland)
- Thomas Nelson, Jr. (Virginia)
- Francis Lightfoot Lee (Virginia)
- Carter Braxton (Virginia)
- John Penn (North Carolina)
- Button Gwinnett (Georgia)
- Lyman Hall (Georgia)
On the two-dollar bill
Trumbull's painting is the source of the picture on the reverse of the two-dollar bill, which cuts out the farthest four figures on the left (George Wythe, William Whipple, Josiah Bartlett and Thomas Lynch, Jr.); the farthest two figures on the right (Thomas McKean and Philip Livingston); and seated in the left rear, George Walton. The bill features 40 of the 47 figures from Trumbull's painting. Two other unknown figures are superimposed in the engraving in between Samuel Chase and Lewis Morris and between James Wilson and Francis Hopkinson, bringing the total number of figures on the reverse of the two-dollar bill to 42.
Key to historical figures depicted in the painting
The following key to the figures in the painting follows the numbering used by the U.S. government publication "Art of the Capitol" (in the illustration of the key shown in this section) but provides a different (hopefully clearer) description of which figure is where in the painting, so numbers are not entirely in order.
Key to figures (in each group, listed from left to right):
Four men seated on the far left:
Seated at the table on the left:
Seated together to the right of Harrison and in front of the standing figures:
Five figures standing together on the left:
Three seated figures in the back between the two sets of standing figures:
Set of three figures standing together in the back:
Ten figures seated:
- 17. Robert Morris (first on the left at the table)
- 18. Thomas Willing†
- 19. Benjamin Rush
- 20. Elbridge Gerry
- 21. Robert Treat Paine
- 22. Abraham Clark
- 26. William Hooper
- 27. Joseph Hewes
- 28. James Wilson
- 29. Francis Hopkinson
Five figures standing in front:
- 30. John Adams
- 31. Roger Sherman
- 32. Robert R. Livingston†
- 33. Thomas Jefferson
- 34. Benjamin Franklin
Four background figures seated together near the right corner of the room:
Two figures standing in the right corner of the room:
Two foreground figures at the central table:
Three figures standing at right:
Two figures seated at far right:
† Not a signer of the (final) Declaration of Independence but depicted in painting.
Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States is a similar painting depicting members of the Constitutional Convention. Painted in 1940, the work is also located in the U.S. Capitol.
- Yale Art Gallery page on painting.
- John Hazelton, The Historical Value of Trumbull's - Declaration of Independence, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography - Volume 31, (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1907), 38.
- Keys to the figures