Trumbull's Portrayal of Yorktown

Ana Ashrafi, Grace Ito, Yasin Gunasekar, & Sarah Zariwala

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Story Truth by Ana Ashrafi

In John Trumball's painting, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 1781, many details of Cornwallis's surrender are portrayed differently. The painting tries to focus the audience's attention to the center of the painting where the British are about to hand over the sword and end the revolution. The painting exludes the actual battle and encouter of Cornwallis and Washington which took place prior to the formal surrender ceremony. Smoke is seen in the background of the painting implying that there was a large battle, but no dead people or injured people are actually shown. John Trumball did this to make the audience understand the degree of importance of the surrender at Yorktown and that what really mattered was the end result that put an end to the American Revolution. Trumball wanted to make the audience feel a sense of pride and victory, rather than painting a lot of dead people to make the audience feel a bit shocked. The painting does not show the actual surrender of Cornwallis to Washington in the field because Trumball wanted to portray the great power and influence of the Americans and French as a whole instead of just showing the actions of two men.

Identity of the Author - John Trumbull by Sarah Zariwala

John Trumbull, the painter of The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 1781 was a soldier in the American Revolution, an architect and an author. He helped George Washington in the war and achieved the rank of colonel. Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773 which was two years before the American Revolution started. He was the first American painter to have a college education. After graduation he taught school in Lebanon for a winter but still continued to study art.

As the Revolution started he went to Boston under the command of General Joseph Spencer. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill which was a great subject for his historical paintings because he was so close to the battle. He caught George Washington’s attention when he drew a plan of the enemy’s works in front of the Revolutionary army and that’s when he was appointed as Washington’s aid.

In 1777 Trumbull resigned and continued to paint and went to England where he studied under Benjamin West, a leading painter in Europe.

He sketched several paintings including The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, in Jefferson’s house. In the autumn of 1787 Trumbull visited Jefferson again where he painted the portraits of the French officers in The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, from life. He left specific details in the background to be finished later.

In 1817 Trumbull returned to America. Four large paintings were going to be placed in the Capitol Rotunda including the Surrender or Lord Cornwallis. The painting was painted during the war and Trumbull was twenty five when he completed it.

Critique of the Painting by Yasin Gunasekar

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 1781 by John Trumbull 1820 depicts the surrender of British forces at Yorktown, ending the revolutionary war. Trumbull's painting has a romantic theme, and depicts the emotion of the victory. Trumbull uses dark, cool colors to achieve a romantic aesthetic.Behind the soldiers is a dark and gloomy background with clouds of smoke, behind these clouds the sky has a dawn-like glow. The dark clouds of smoke may allude to the previous battles that have taken place, while the coming of dawn may represent a new , brighter chapter for America's future. The emphasis of the painting is on General Benjamin Lincoln who is on a white horse; Trumbull uses Lincoln as the emphasis in the painting to depict America's win in the battle and to give the audience a sense of American pride. Lincoln is between the soldiers and is mounted highly on a horse, which emphasizes his importance and his authority. The white horse also represents purity and victory. Under Lincoln there are three British soldiers who are surrendering. The British soldiers wear red coats and black hats, and the front soldier has a sword in his hand. Lincoln's hand is reaching out to retrieve the sword. Trumbull paints the British soldiers under Lincoln to show that they are defeated. In the left of the painting French troops stand tall while raising the Royal Bourbon flag, and on the right of the painting American troops stand tall while raising the American flag. Both sides of troops are well dressed and stand proudly, Trumbull paints them this way to invoke the feeling of respect and dignity. The two flags represent the union of the French and American on their joint cause to defeat the British.

Happening Truth by Grace Ito

On October 19, 1781, Charles Cornwallis, the General of the British army, surrendered 8,000 soldiers and seamen in Yorktown, Virginia, ending the American Revolution.

This began with Cornwallis leading his troops towards the coast of Virginia in order to maintain communications with General Henry Clinton; however, Yorktown was on a peninsula, meaning it would be easy to block any escape by land. George Washington seized this opportunity and ordered Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally, to block Cornwallis from any land escapes, while Washington and Comte de Rochambeau, another French ally, made their way towards Yorktown and in early September reached the Chesapeake Bay. While this was occurring, the British fleet had no choice but to retreat to New York after being surprised by the French fleet, which left Cornwallis without any reinforcements, and, ultimately, left him and his troops stranded.

Being surrounded and running out of supplies due to the siege, Cornwallis was forced to surrender. Because Cornwallis was ill, he was not able to attend the surrender, so General Charles O’Hara, his second in command, attended. They had to surrender 7087 troops, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, and 30 transport ships, and O’Hara presented Cornwallis’ sword to the American and French commanders. At the end, the British troops marched away as the song “The World Turned Upside Down” was played by their band, signifying the end of the war and the American Victory.

War Story

In the Battle of Yorktown, there weren't many lives shed between the British and the Americans. Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington very peacefully, but unfortunately, Cornwallis became ill and could not attend the formal surrender ceremony. The formal ceremony which took place on the same field of the battle, which is displayed in John Trumbull's painting, was very calm and the British officer unhesitatingly handed the American general his sword to show respect to the victors, the Americans as well as the French, which are seen standing very confidently on the sides of the painting. The American Revolution had finally ended in a very peaceful and friendly manner.