The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull was the first piece I decided to use when I was developing my project. It came to mind as a well known work of art depicting an important event in American history. It may be familiar to many Americans because it is also on the back of the two dollar bill. Like most art illustrating an actual historical event in American history, every person in the piece is a white man.
The painting imagines John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston presenting the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress. John Trumbull featured the likenesses of 42 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, as well as a few who were part of the debate but did not sign.
Trumbull, a contemporary of the Founding Fathers, visited most of the men and painted them in person, though some he painted from portraits. His painting though, is neither an accurate representation of the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the presentation of it. Some of the men painted from portraits are thought to be inaccurate representations and the 47 men depicted were never all together at the same time, as the debate and the signing took place over weeks. Still, The Declaration of Independence is a patriotic representation of an idealized event in American history and it now hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C..
Although the Declaration of Independence seemed like an obvious choice for my project it was my most difficult piece, not just because I could not find depictions of women from that period that matched Trumbull’s painting style, but because it was difficult to find paintings of women at all, especially women of color.
In my piece, Independence, I replaced 21 men with women and overall added 8 white women, 8 black women, and 8 Native American women.
It was challenging to find paintings of named women of color. For four of the black women I ended up using a painting by Eyre Crowe, Slave Waiting For Sale, from 1853, (36 years after Trumbull started Declaration). I felt conflicted about using a painting of enslaved women, but, at least, Crowe, a British traveler in the United States, painted a compassionate and realistic depiction of enslaved people that engaged the sympathy of his audience.
I found it even more impossible to find paintings of Native American women. All of the women included in my version of Declaration were to be contemporaries of the Founding Fathers. And, when given the option, I would use artwork that showed them at the age they would have been in 1776. But the painting Chée-ah-ká-tché, by George Catlin, was painted from life in 1835. Koon-za-ya-me, also by George Catlin, was probably painted in 1840. Karl Bodmer’s Woman of the Snake-Tribe, Woman of the Cree-Tribe was also painted from life, in 1836.
In the end, I did the best I could with the artwork I had available to me, while also taking into account the artist’s treatment of their subject.
Some laws and circumstances that would have applied to the women added to this painting:
White colonists enslaved Native American people and sold them in the Caribbean. Overall 2 – 4 million Native Americans were enslaved, and most of them were taken off the continent.
1662 – Virginia passed a law that any child born in the colony would inherit the status of its mother. This allowed white men to deny their mixed-race children born of their rape of slave women.
1693 – Massachusetts passed a law that forbade anyone from buying anything from a black, Indian, or mulatto servant.
1712 – South Carolina passed a law that “all negros, mulattoes, mestizo’s or Indians, which at any time heretofore have been sold, or now are held or taken to be, or hereafter shall be bought and sold for slaves, are hereby declared slaves; and they, and their children, are hereby made and declared slaves…”
1769 – English Common Law throughout the colonies – Coverture: By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law…the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing [and] protection she performs everything.” In practice, a married woman could not own property, all wealth she brought into the marriage or earned during the marriage became her husband’s. If her husband died she could not be the legal guardian of her underage children. She was not able to sue or sign contracts.
1777 – All states pass laws to take away a woman’s right to vote in the newly formed United States.