Comments on famous paintings of the Siege of Yorktown (1781),

Yorktown Surrender (1781), 1797 oil painting by American artist John Trumbull; held at the Yale Art Gallery. A 1824 copy is in the US Capitol.

Surrender of Cornwallis[sic] at Yorktown' (1781) by John Trumbull, American artist (1756-1843). The above image is a preliminary painting completed c. 1797, and is now exhibited in the Yale University Art Gallery. The final work, completed on, or before 1824, is displayed in the Rotunda of the Nation's Capitol. As Cornwallis pleaded illness and did not appear for the surrender ceremonies on 19 October 1781, the title is best labeled the ‘Yorktown Surrender'. General Cornwallis sent his second in command, General O'Hara [on foot, center in the painting*], to offer his sword, which was received by General Washington's second, General Lincoln [mounted, center*]. Trumbull was not present at the 1781 surrender, but he did make an effort to capture the likeness of many of the individual's portrayed. In spite of his research and potential to interview contemporary witnesses, Trumbull's artistic orientation persuaded him to take considerable liberties in his painting. [*NOTE: These identifications are addressed further in last section of this page]

Trumbull had been an officer in the Continental Army in 1775, and for a short period was an aide-de-camp of Washington. However, he resigned his commission in a fit of pique in 1777. In 1780 he went to study in London, but was arrested in reprisal for the American hanging of the British spy Major André. Trumbull returned to England in 1784 and studied with Benjamin West. In England, Trumbull was influenced by the heroic nationalistic paintings so popular at the Royal Academy. In such works, specific technical accuracy was not as important and presenting the event with dramatic flair and staging. Imagery was chosen more to impress the intended viewing audience, which would naturally be attuned to fashions of times later than those at the time the subject scene occured. The artists, performing somewhat as 'propagandists' felt the needs to cater to the fashions most familiar to their viewing public.
In preparing to paint the ‘Yorktown Surrender' scene, Trumbull traveled across Europe in 1787-88 to sketch the likeness of the senior European officers at Yorktown, and did the same with American participants when he returned to the US in 1789. Trumbull painted in Washington's portrait in New York in February or March 1790, and visited Yorktown in April 1791 to sketch the landscape. He wrote to Jefferson expressing that his goal in painting "was commemorating the great events of our country's Revolution."
For some time, Trumbull's projected historical paintings did not meet with success, and he was forced to paint portraits. Finally, in 1816, he was commissioned to paint panels for the Rotunda of the Nation's Capitol. His heroic renderings have become icons depicting: the ‘Declaration of Independence', the ‘Surrender of Cornwallis', ‘Surrender of Burgoyne', and ‘Washington Resigning' his military commission, which he completed in 1824 after earlier sketches. In 1831 he gave his personal collection to Yale University – though he was a 1773 Harvard graduate.

Questionable imagery and errors in Trumbull's ‘Yorktown Surrender':

  1. General O'Hara was mounted, and not on foot, during the ceremony. However, the rendering as shown today is a 'make do' correction of Trumbull's initial error which depicted Cornwallis on horseback in the center of the painting. Trumbull was obviously not too familiar with the details of the surrender ceremonies. His original portrait of Cornwallis in the scene was challenged when presented to the public. The artist attempted to correct the error by changing the color of the uniform -- thereby making 'Cornwallis' the American General Lincoln. [Some observers report that "a comparison of portraits of Lincoln and Cornwallis leaves little doubt but that the figure originally represented Cornwallis." It is not certain even if Trumbull intended for the British officer standing next to the mounted figure in the center to be General O'Hara.
  2. The cut of the uniforms and epaulettes are not of the 1781 time period, but rather reflect the military fashions of 1790's and after.
  3. Trumbull placed de Grasse among the line of mounted French senior officers [immediately to Rochambeau's right]. However, de Grasse never set foot on American soil during the campaign.
  4. There is debate as to the 'national' flags shown in Trumbull's painting. There are some contemporary descriptions as to the design of the American flag which do not conform to the one shown by Trumbull. However, Edward W. Richardson's Standards and Colors of the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press and the Pennsylvania Sons of the American Revolution and Its Color Guard, 1982) makes an effort to focus on the specific topic.
    Richardson points to an illustration map 'Continental and French Armies at Yorktown' executed by Sebastian Bauman, who had been with the US Army at Yorktown in 1781. Bauman executed his work in 1782. His work contains the American and French Royal [with cartouch of the Royal Arms] standards as decorations framing the title notes. Richardson's constructed image looks a lot like that of Trumbull's painting. So there is reasonable support for Trumbull showing the ‘Stars and Stripes' were at Yorktown, with only minor questions remaining as to number of red/white stripes and points on the white stars in a blue field.
    The French flag is, of course, not the standard of the King of France – which would have had the royal arms in the center. Richardson's Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, states that there is no certain description of an overall standard displayed by the French. French regiments each had two flags -- that of the regimental colors and a mostly white flag -- 'the colonel's colors' -- that bore a small image of the colonel's arms. French naval vessels had large white flags, upon which was sewn large white crosses – giving the appearance of all white. Otherwise, there is little support for Trumbull's depiction of the French 'national' flag in his painting of the Yorktown surrender.
    Interestingly the French artist Blarenberge's paintings of the surrender present considerable detail of the Regimental colors, even showing the Royal Deux-Ponts' 'Colonel's Colors' as well as Washington's 'Blue Standard'. Blarenghe was a professional painter of battle and campaign scenes for the French army. He was not present at Yorktown in 1781, but his paintings were executed under the direct supervision of Berthier, a skilled draftsman and former member of Rochambeau's staff in America (1781-83). His depictions of French flags and uniforms remain the most reliable visual references. More on Blarenberge's Yorktown (1781) paintings.


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Page created 10 December 2003, revised 20 December 2003.