American Art: An Analysis

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American Art spans over two centuries and covers a vast amount of history. One of the best sources for knowledge is the Capitol’s Historic Rotunda Paintings. Four of them: the Baptism of Pocahontas, the Declaration of Independence, the Embarkation of the Pilgrims and General George Washington Resigning His Commission, depict very crucial points of history, most prior to the vision of the United States of America. Additionally, the National Statuary Hall Collection contains statues depicting figures that were very influential in contribution to their state. Two of these people were Robert E. Lee and George Washington, representatives of Virginia. Through the examination of these paintings and statues, history is illuminated.

Rotunda Paintings

Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman

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In this painting, the artist is trying to portray both division and unification. For division, it is easy to see the negative body language coming from one member of the tribe on the right side of the painting, possibly due to Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity. However, unification between the Tidewater tribes and the colonists is also portrayed because of her marriage to John Rolfe after her conversion. Like the portrayal, the feelings are variable. Some colonists are interested or indifferent to the baptism while most of the tribal members are either disinterested or disturbed by the conversion. The image was commissioned in 1837 and was hung in 1840. Events that were occurring to shape the composition of this painting include the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia as well as the beginning of the English people’s permanent expansion into the New World. The message contained in the image is one of the merging of two very different cultures. Obviously, this merging was far from smooth and was met with hostility from both sides. The artist is successful in his message. The placement, specific highlighting of Pocahontas and the minister as well as the detailed body language of the people surrounding the ceremony deliver an overall message of hostility.1 Given the context of the “infiltration of England in the form of colonies in the New World, in this case with the Tidewater tribes, hostility is expected.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

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In this painting, the artist John Trumbull is trying to portray unity of who would become the founding fathers in America. Attention is given primarily to Thomas Jefferson, who is holding the Declaration of Independence. The feelings evoked are unity, strength, and power, given the demeanor of the background onlookers as well as the five prominent founding fathers in the center of the painting. The image was commissioned in 1818 and hung in 1826. The events occurring in America in 1818 were the adoption of the United States flag by Congress and the treaty of 1818 which created a boundary of land between the UK and the US. The latter event is most significant regarding the painting’s message because during the time of the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the US was struggling to break away. With the treaty, the struggle came full circle and the US was expanding its land control, all beginning with the Declaration.2 The artist is successful. The connection between the content and context is clear. The content displays unification and strength of the colonists, most predominantly, the founding fathers against England which corresponds most strongly to the United States further expanding its power over England with the treaty of 1818.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir

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The artist is trying to portray calmness and serenity among the pilgrims who are about to embark on a journey to achieve religious freedom. What is striking in the painting is the deliberate shadowing of the place that is left on the right and the deliberate softening and the introduction of light on the left with a rainbow to represent hope and a better life. The feelings shown are bravery, calmness, and hope. The image was commissioned and hung in 1843. A couple of events that occurred in America were religious in nature. First, there was a prediction that the world would end by a preacher. Second, a major Jewish service group was founded. These events represent religious freedom which is what the Mayflower compact depicted in the painting of the pilgrims was all about. Therefore, the artist is successful. The connection between the content and the context is very precise. The content portrays a coming together of the pilgrims on their brave decision to leave religious persecution in exchange for the chance of religious freedom in a new place.3 This corresponds to the context of the time in which the painting was created because religious freedom was being expressed in America by preachers as well as through the creation of a Jewish group.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull

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The artist is trying to portray the coming to life of the American principle of democracy through the submission of George Washington to the betterment of his country. This is done through Washington relinquishing his power as a military commander in exchange for the empowerment of the American people. Because this was a common concern among colonists, Washington’s voluntary resignation symbolizes this. The feelings shown are those of deep admiration and respect for Washington’s decision to voluntary give up his power as a leader of the continental army. The image was commissioned in 1824 and was hung in 1826. One event that occurred when the painting was created in 1823 was the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine. This event coincides with Washington’s resignation because the Monroe Doctrine resigns the power of the US to interfere in European problems. This is significant not only because of the relinquishing of power but because George Washington was a proponent of neutrality during his years as leader of the United States.4 Because of this connection, the artist is successful. The connection between the Monroe Doctrine and Washington’s step down from power is very symmetric because both events speak to the character of the US as a power balanced nation.

Robert E. Lee, Representing Virginia

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Robert E. Lee’s historical significant precedes his involvement in the Civil War. He was a fantastic contributor to his state making him a great representative for Virginia. He served through military and scholastic achievements, ranking 2nd at his graduation from the United States Military Academy. He fought in the Mexican War and worked as a superintendent for the Academy for four years. Lee worked he way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel but was forced to take a short absence for two years. After the South’s secession from the Union, Lee attempted to remove himself from involvement of the war because he strongly opposed it. Ultimately though, his desire to serve the state drove him to lead the military in Virginia. Due to his skill in military strategy and combat, he was very highly respected by both Confederate leaders and soldiers. In fact, he was promoted by then-President Jefferson Davis to army commander in 1862. However, just three years later, Lee surrendered to General Grant.5 He went on to preside as President of Washington College until his death in 1870.

George Washington, Representing Virginia

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George Washington’s historical significance precedes his leadership in the Revolutionary War and his leadership as President of the United States after the war. His military career began in 1753 when he fought in the French and Indian War and eventually became a lieutenant colonel. Washington eventually went on to represent Virginia in the First and Second Continental Congresses and in the middle of 1775, he became the leader of the Continental Army, solidifying his qualifications for being a good representative of Virginia. In 1783, he retired from leading the Continental Army and did not reemerge in the public arena until 1786.6

In 1787, he was unanimously elected President of the United States, however, his term did not begin until two years later. He served two terms and was asked to serve a third term but rejected the request. In his farewell address, Washington made lasting comments that still impact America today. He warned against party politics as well as over-involvement in foreign affairs and urged America to focus on America and to be wary of making alliances with the intent of permanence. A year prior to his death he was asked to return to as army commander but did not have to because the conflict with the French was averted.


Chapman, John G. "Baptism of Pocahontas." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.

Houdon, Jean A. "George Washington." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.

Trumbull, John. "Declaration of Independence." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.

Trumbull, John. "General George Washington Resigning His Commission." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.

Valentine, Edward V. "Robert E. Lee." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.

Weir, Robert W. "Embarkation of the Pilgrims." Architect of the Capitol. Accessed February 15, 2014.