Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown" by John Trumball (Preliminary)

This is John Trumball's 1797 oil painting of General Cornwallis' surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19th, 1781. It is not the final version, which hangs in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. This preliminary version hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery. The final work was completed sometime before 1824, which means that John Trumball, mostly remembered as a potrait artist, spent considerable time on the final version. He spent several years traveling around Europe, and America, sketching the features of anyone still alive from the events of 1781.

General Cornwallis is noticeably absent from the painting, as he was in real life. The General claimed to have a cold that day, and so could not attend the ceremony. Other, unflattering, theories abound. His second in command, one General O'Hara, is seen, on foot, offering his sword to General Washington's second, General Lincoln, who is shown, mounted at the center of the painting.

John Trumball was not present at the surrender, although he did serve in the Continental Army as an officer early in the war. He was also an aide-de-camp to General Washington for a short time. He resigned his position over a trivial matter in 1780, and went to study in London, where he was immediately arrested in reprisal for the hanging of British spy Major Andre.

Therefore, we know that Trumbull was not present at Yorktown in 1781, and this explains some of the liberties he took in the composition of the painting. For instance, Trumball originally had Cornwallis present at the surrender, on horseback, with General O'Hara standing to his side. When the first sketch of the painting was exhibited, it became apparent that Trumball was totally unfamiliar with the events of the day he was attempting to immortalize. At that point he began his long quest to get the picture right.

From 1787 through 1789, Trumball traveled to Europe to sketch the senior officers who had been present that day at Yorktown. Upon his return to America, in 1789, he did the same thing with all of the surviving members of the Continental Army who had also been present that day. In 1790 he went to New York, which was then the nation's capital, in order to paint George Washington into the picture. By 1791 he was actually visiting Yorktown in order to sketch the scene correctly.

In spite of all of his preparatory work, the painting is still grossly inaccurate in many respects. There are officers present in the painting, such as Admiral Compte de Grasse, in the line of French Officers, even though he was not in America at the time. Even the uniforms shown are incorrect for the era, they are actually later versions of the respective uniforms from the 1790's.

No matter, the painting still stands as a great vision of the events of that long ago day. And, in the final analysis, is it really that important who was standing where? The real majesty of this painting is in the truth of General Cornwallis' surrender, rather than how may buttons are on the sleeves of General O'Hara's coat, or how may stripes are on the flag.

Although Trumball was a 1773 graduate of Harvard, in 1831 he donated his personal collection to Yale University, where this preliminary painting of "Cornwallis at Yorktown" resides today.

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