In 1817, former president John Adams publicly declared: “I consider the true history of the American revolution, and of the establishment of our present constitutions, as lost forever . . . Nothing but misrepresentations, or partial accounts of it, ever will be recovered.” In a personal letter to painter John Trumbull, he added, “Characters and Counsels and Action . . . are always neglected.”
Trumbull, at the time, was working on the four huge paintings that still adorn the United States Capitol Rotunda, including “Declaration of Independence,” which features Adams front and center. It’s a dignified, orderly canvas — and that, to Adams’s mind, was the problem. It reflected little of the wrangling and rancor that, 40 years earlier, had gone into hammering out the political credos that shaped the country’s system of government.
“Of Arms and Artists” brings those turbulent negotiations to volatile life, while delivering unexpected ironies as art historian Paul Staiti uncovers the stories of Trumbull and his fellow artists Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart. Staiti addresses the wartime activities — or lack thereof — of artists who found themselves either on the battlefield or in awkward exile in London with their allegiances disguised or undeclared. And he drives home the point that the most talented iconmaker, Stuart, was as apolitical as they come.
Staiti takes his five painters in chronological order, starting with Peale, whose portrait of then-Gen. George Washington, commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, was “the first piece of public art in the United States.” Peale fought under Washington. (One of his diary entries reads: “Finished the governors Portrait, the afternoon spent in Exercise of War”). He was also involved in confiscating Loyalists’ property in Philadelphia after the British abandoned the city.
“Peale imagined for himself a central place in America’s rising glory,” Staiti writes. But it wasn’t to be. Far from receiving postwar state support for his patriotic artistic efforts, he found himself navigating “the vagaries of the American marketplace without a financial lifeline.”
The colonies had always been an iffy place for an artist to make a living, and the other painters in the book spent significant time in London and/or Paris to advance their careers. West, although he quietly nursed Patriot sympathies, was George III’s official court painter: a tricky position to maintain during the war. His paintings on biblical, mythical or historical subjects were closely scrutinized for subversive content. Staiti calls his career “a political high-wire act of the first order.”
Portraitist Copley, who painted both American and British clients in his native Boston, ditched the blockaded city in 1774 when his situation there became untenable. His Loyalist half-brother was supplying Boston maps to the British; his father-in-law was the importer of the tea that got a dunking during the Boston Tea Party.
To Copley’s mind, “Civil War” — as he deemed it — was worse than tolerating British taxation and hubris in the colonies. Staiti’s details on families and communities divided by the conflict make it plain that “civil war” was exactly what it felt like. After fleeing to London, Copley was less successful than West in keeping his politics “calculatingly obscure.” But at least he avoided jail time.
Trumbull wasn’t so lucky. Staiti’s chapter on him reads like an episode out of AMC’s “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” In London, where he’d gone to study with West, Trumbull was pulled into the espionage activities of “radical British supporters of the Revolution,” landing him seven months in prison. Unlike Peale, he stayed engaged in politics upon his return to the United States, putting his artistic career on hold to become an American diplomat posted in London and Paris — one reason “Declaration of Independence,” begun in 1786, took him decades to complete.
Stuart was the most trickster-like of the five. Staiti calls him “careless to the edge of recklessness, impulsive bordering on erratic.” His Loyalist family took refuge in Nova Scotia, but Stuart himself chose no sides in the conflict. One friend called him the “greatest of our Artists” and the “most unprincipled of our Citizens” — not what you’d expect of a painter whose name is synonymous with his 100-plus portraits of George Washington.
The book is furnished with 16 pages of handsome color plates, which give some notion of the paintings’ quality. It also supplies black-and-white reproductions of them on the pages where they’re mentioned, for handy reference.
Staiti, in casting an analytical eye on the paintings, can’t always compete with the dramatic lives he’s recounting. But he does drive home two points very effectively. First, the art of the American Revolution was as much about “spin” as documentation, often rendering peppery personalities, including Washington’s, in a misleadingly sedate manner. Second, bitter conflicts between the Founding Fathers — Washington vs. Thomas Jefferson, Adams vs. Benjamin Franklin — could give our present-day Congress a run for its money.
“Of Arms and Artists” brings to life a war you may not know as well as you think you do — and artists whose idealism on canvas didn’t always align with their private lives.
Upchurch is a novelist and a former book critic for the Seattle Times.
By Paul Staiti
Bloomsbury. 389 pp. $30