Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States: a Retrospective

To honor Howard Chandler Christy's 148th birthday, I thought it would be interesting to discuss what is possibly his crowning achievement. This painting, The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, is not only Howard Chandler Christy's most impressive painting, but is also widely agreed to be the best depiction of the Signing of the Constitution. The painting, which hangs in the east stairway of the House wing at the U. S. Capitol, is an impressive 20 by 30 feet -- so large, in fact, that, when Christy painted it, he had the canvas hanging from the mast of a ship. After two failed joint resolutions in the House in 1937 and 1938, he was finally commissioned and began to work on it in 1939, completing it in 1940.

Plenty of other artistic depictions of this event exist, but this one is especially noteworthy for two reasons:

1.) Historical accuracy: While there are certain details Christy got wrong, (there were several more people present at the actual event than were shown in the painting, and delegate John Dickinson is shown in the painting when in reality he did not attend,) these are minor when you consider the tremendous amount of attention that was paid to even the smallest details. For example, the stack of books sitting next to Benjamin Franklin were modeled after books that had actually belonged to Jefferson, which Christy borrowed from the Library of Congress. He also borrowed George Washington's suit from the Smithsonian, and sketched the lighting in Independence Hall at the same time of day -- and year -- as the event, so as to get it absolutely right. Last but not least, Christy located the most visually accurate likenesses he could find of all those present. He was only able to locate 37 out of the 39 people shown, but he compensated for this by obstructing the faces of the two.

 

Left: Pierce Butler of South Carolina, obscured by the raised arm of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Right: Jacob Broom, obscured by the heads of John Dickinson and David Brearley.

2.) Aesthetic: This is really more of a personal opinion than anything, but I find other depictions of the Signing, such as the ones by Albert Herter (1910) and Louis S. Glanzman (commissioned 1976) to be comparatively dull and lifeless. The poses aren't as dramatic on either of these, and the use of color is not as rich and lifelike as on Christy's painting. Also, Christy made extremely effective use of composition, as his painting has a level of depth that leads your eye on a journey further and further into the picture, emphasizing every important detail (such as George Washington's imposing figure at right, for instance) along the way. To top it all off, his brushstrokes are equally impressive, as they appear quick and effortless while still being carefully executed.

Unfortunately, if you are in D.C., and would like to honor Christy on his special day, you won't be able to visit this painting, as the east stairway of the House wing is off limits to tourists. But there are other ways to celebrate, including dinner at The Leopard at Des Artistes in New York, which I review in the next post. And last but not least, check out our collection of Howard Chandler Christy's art for sale.



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