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American Neoclassical Paintings & Painters

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Neoclassicism hit America with great fervor. The paintings of John Trumbull, Rembrandt Peale, John Vanderlyn, Sarah Miriam Peale, and Benjamin West are revered as some of the best American neoclassical paintings. In this lesson, we will discuss each painter and their works in brief.

A Brief History of American Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism occurred in America between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was a return to the classical ideas of Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations. American neoclassical paintings included incredibly detailed accounts of history. Painters took great care in accurately painting the clothing, settings, characters, and the history of the setting. Themes such as heroism, war, and tradition were prominent in the paintings. Moreover, many of the American neoclassical painters focused heavily on portraits, using austere lines and depictions of American war. Some of the most prominent American neoclassical painters were John Trumbull, Rembrandt Peale, and Benjamin West.

John Trumbull

John Trumbull was a diverse painter who started his life as a soldier in the American Revolution. He served as an aide to George Washington and left the military as a Colonel. Trumbull used his firsthand experiences of the American Revolution to paint historically accurate and detailed paintings of its major battles and contributors.

After leaving the military, John Trumbull worked and studied under Benjamin West in London. Trumbull traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States between 1780 and 1784 due to political tensions between the U.S. and England. In 1784, Trumbull returned to France where he began painting the series of paintings that depicted the American Revolution. He painted Battle of Bunker Hill,Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, Declaration of Independence, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. He would go on to paint many more stunning pieces in his lifetime.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull
Surrender of Cornwallis

His painting, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis was commissioned by President James Madison for $8,000. The painting depicts the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The background is ominous, with dark clouds and a bright blue sky. The painting also shows American General Benjamin Lincoln, British General Charles O'Hara, and American General George Washington.

Rembrandt Peale

When you think of Presidential portraits, it's likely that the classic portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come to mind. Those portrait standards are the work of Rembrandt Peale, an American painter who learned how to paint from his father and through self-study. Peale became determined to paint portraits that depicted the true likeness of his subjects, but it was his obsession with painting George Washington that launched his career as an artist.

George Washington Portrait by Rembrandt Peale
George Washington Portrait by Rembrandt Peale

In 1824, Peale painted the Patriæ Pater, a portrait of George Washington viewed through an oval porthole window. It became an instant success and was bought by Congress. Afterwards, Peale painted 70 replicas of George Washington in different outfits. During his career, Peale painted many famous people including Chief Justice John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, and John C. Calhoun. Besides portraits, Peale painted many other paintings including The Roman Daughter, a painting showing a young woman protecting her father who is in chains.

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