Grill, wave sparklers, make merry today — but if you want an Independence Day experience you'll never forget, go tomorrow to Hartford's superb Wadsworth Atheneum and look at a national treasure that should make your eyes water.
In the best mid-sized museum in America hangs the reason for today's celebration. A copy was shown in the 2008 HBO miniseries " John Adams" — and Hartford should be proud to have its own.
It's the "Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776," the most important painting in a series commissioned by Congress to hang in the Capitol rotunda. It's the most popular painting there, seen by more than 2 million visitors a year.
But artist John Trumbull painted three versions — the original small one for Yale (hanging in the university's Art Gallery), the huge one for the rotunda and the Atheneum painting, with the artist until his death. Daniel Wadsworth, who bought it for the first public art gallery in America, considered Trumbull a father figure and married his niece.
Thomas Jefferson himself suggested the topic in 1786 and was deeply involved in the painting's details: Make the subjects look nice or realistic? asked Trumbull. Realistic, said Jefferson. Include opponents of the act? Yes, said Jefferson.
The painting takes liberties. The committee that drafted the Declaration (including Jefferson and Connecticut's Roger Sherman) presented it on June 28, not July 4. Nowhere near as many men were there as Trumbull depicts. The chairs and doors are all wrong.
But Trumbull was mythologizing — not recording — a seminal event, as Abigail Adams understood when she called him "the first painter who has undertaken to immortalize by his pencil those great actions that gave birth to our nation."
The Atheneum and Yale Art Gallery, like most of us, are taking today off. But you can enjoy this great American icon tomorrow. The shivers it will bring will be no less thrilling.
The Wadsworth Atheneum is open Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m and the Yale Art Gallery is open Sunday 1-6 p.m.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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