The “unwanted Cockroach in the Frontier Kitchen”

American artists, from the  very beginning it seems, have had to fight for their place within the Colonial/Federal cultural climate.  John Trumbull, arguably one of the best painters in the new sovereign nation following the American Revolutionary War, was passed over for commissions to document the sweeping themes of a successful fight for freedom.  By the time the Federal government had decided to document its new history by commissioning John Trumbull to paint four history compositions, the artist was well past his prime.  Had the leaders of the new nation acted in a more timely manner, Trumbull would have been at his artistic peak and the United States would have been the recipient of four masterful paintings documenting the incredible turn of events!  The American leadership at the time was distracted by other ideas and Trumbull’s commissions came nearly 40 years too late!  John Sloan, the strongest and most accomplished painter available in the colonies and Federal period after John Singleton Copley decided to leave for England, had unfortunately lost his youthful skill set by the time he was commissioned to document the new sovereign state.  In essence, Trumbull and other painters were, according to American painter John Sloan, “the unwanted cockroach in the kitchen of a frontier society”!

What are your thoughts on Federal or State governments commissioning artists to document historical events for posterity?

John Trumbull, Self Portrait, 1802

John Trumbull, Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill,  1786

John Trumbull, George Washington at Trenton, 1792

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


8 thoughts on “The “unwanted Cockroach in the Frontier Kitchen””

  1. On one hand, I think it is a smart decision for historical events to be captured in artworks so that they can be memorialized. They become little snapshots into history because they show the actual event but also how the artist viewed the event. However, I think governments commissioning art to be very problematic. They always have agendas and certain ideas they want presented, regardless of the truth. History needs to be portrayed with an unbiased hand but that’s almost impossible to do. There are two sides to every story and so any artwork is not going to be 100% accurate.


  2. A painter paints what he sees or imagines. As a result of this, the truth can be distorted whether done unintentionally or intentionally. Today, artists have more freedom of expression than they did in the past. We have laws now, to ensure that censorship isn’t used to contain artists from exercising their right. Before, things were a lot more regulated and State governments had more say in what was deemed appropriate or permissible. But even in today’s world, there is still an existence of a bias through the artist’s perception. And it is because of this very reason, that State government commissioned paintings on historical events should not be taken in a literal sense, rather, they should be used as a frame of reference. If you want to know what really happened, that’s where history textbooks come into play.


  3. I would say that it is great to see our government commission artists to document historical events. From a journalistic standpoint however, I feel that fine art paintings have seen a decline since the advent of photography and its immediacy. Fine painters and artists, have their own style and technique for portraying a specific time or event and can interpret it in many ways. For example, paintings still exists, just recently in the National Portrait gallery, they have added Barrack and Michele Obama’s portraits. These paintings, far from realistic, blends everything they have stood for during their presidential term.


  4. I agree with Andrew when he says that the portraits of the former First Lady and President capture the essence of their time in office. Perhaps the late arrival and commission of these painters in the colonies could be looked at glass half full by understanding that they were able to capture those events and people not for what they were, at the moment in time but for the essence of the path they left in history. In the other hand, yes maybe Trumbull was commissioned 40 years too late, but maybe other great works of art could have never been painted. But maybe yeah these artist were “the unwanted cockroach” if that is the case well it is really unfortunate but learning about them now is a bit of redemption and honor we can bring to their careers even if it is too late.


  5. I agree with Laura’s statement: “that the late arrival and commission of these painters in the colonies could have been looked at glass half full by understanding …they were able to capture events and people … for the essence of the path they left in history.” This is a profound statement to me. If the government commissioners would have embraced the perspective these artists now had in their later years of life, they may have been able to commission pieces of work that would have provided a new outlook on the American experience. While I understand the government’s hesitancy, I also believe this was a missed opportunity. I also partly agree with Julie’s sentiment that governments should not commission artwork because of censorship. This is a risk that is run when artists are asked to create work for large entities like governments – who always have their own personal agenda.


  6. I think Julie is correct in pointing out the problems inherent in the government commissioning artwork to “document” history. Personally, I believe that the artwork created independently by artists at the time, showing their own personal view of contemporary events, is a much more accurate portrayal of their current zeitgeist. However, it is important because it shows an affirmation of the artists’ talents and importance in the country and culture when the government commissions these artists. It’s a good indicator of the cultural values of the government at the time.


  7. The problem with using art to document historical events is that they are inherently incredibly biased. If you are creating a piece of work to show off an event, especially if you’ve been commissioned by your government, what you portray is going to be heavily towards the side that is paying you. No government is going to ask you to portray a historical event in a light that doesn’t shine brightly towards said government. For example, let’s say the government asked you to create a piece of work about a war. You wouldn’t be making artwork about the opposition, you would be making pieces about how great our military is and stuff like that.

    I think it’s fine for artists to create artwork that documents history on their own, but when they are commissioned by the government, it is easy to distort the true reality of our history.


  8. I feel like the government commissioning artists is a great thing. It is a good representation of the person in that time. If we didn’t have these representations we wouldn’t know the actual face of many historical figures in time. I feel that it is influential because once a portrait of someone is made/taken we are able to connect with that person without actually meeting them. Especially when the artist gets the portrait right.


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