Our Top Ten American History Paintings for the Fourth of July
Happy Fourth of July! In celebration of Independence Day, we’re exploring some famous American paintings that recount the history of the Revolutionary War and the founding of our country. Since the colonial period, Americans have turned to art as a way to record significant events and people in US history. Whether made in support of the Patriot cause in the American Revolution or just to help an artist earn a living, these paintings help future generations better understand the past. Many of our top 10 American history paintings are famous icons of American culture, while others may be new to some readers. Either way, we’ve included some interesting facts about each artwork. Before heading off to enjoy fireworks, spend some time learning about American history through art.
No. 1. John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Paul Revere, 1768.
This painting by American artist John Singleton Copley shows Paul Revere, a key Patriot leader. Best remembered today for his famous midnight ride, Revere was also a silversmith, and this portrait highlights his skills -- look closely and you can see his tools lying on the table.
No. 2. Paul Revere after Henry Pelham, The Boston Massacre, 1770.
This artwork is not a painting but an engraving, and it is one of the most recognized images of the American Revolution. In addition to working as a silversmith, Paul Revere was also an engraver. He made this engraving, which depicts an incident of British soldiers firing on a crowd in Boston, in order to convince others to support the Patriots.
No. 3. Portrait of Samuel Adams, by J.S. Copley about 1772
Next up is another portrait by Copley, this one of Patriot Samuel Adams. Copley depicts Adams in a moment of leadership as he demands that the British governor remove British troops from Boston in the wake of the Boston Massacre. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts states that this portrait is believed to have been commissioned by fellow Patriot John Hancock.
No. 4. John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, 1818.
John Trumbull’s painting shows the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, led by Thomas Jefferson, presenting their draft of the document to the Continental Congress at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It is displayed in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Fun Fact: This painting is featured on the back of the two-dollar bill.
No. 5. Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851.
This painting may be the most famous in American art history. Emanuel Leutze’s image of Washington Crossing the Delaware has been reproduced countless times, becoming a symbol of America as well-known as Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty. Later American artists, including Kent Monkman, Robert Colescott, and Kara Walker, have referenced Leutze’s painting in their own work to make statements about race, power, and US history.
No 6. Leutze, Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, c. 1851-54
Though best known today for Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze painted other pictures throughout his career, primarily in the history genre. In this work, he shows Washington leading American troops in the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Leutze’s depiction of Washington on horseback recalls other portraits of leaders from art history such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
No. 7. Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of Abigail Adams, 1800/1815.
The second First Lady of the United States, Abigail Adams played an important role in the founding of the country. She was a close advisor to her husband, John Adams, and her letters reveal her deep knowledge of politics, current events, and literature. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s rights, and is famous for writing in a letter to John that he should "Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
No. 8. Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, 1783.
The American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Benjamin West began a painting to depict the treaty negotiations but never finished it. Why? All of the American representatives except one sat for the artist, but the British did not. According to legend, British diplomat Richard Oswald refused to participate.
No. 9. Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940.
A counterpart to the painting of the Declaration of Independence, this artwork shows the signing of the US Constitution and is displayed in the House of Representatives wing of the Capitol Building. The artist conducted extensive historical research, even studying a pair of George Washington’s breeches in the collection of the Smithsonian.
No. 10. Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington, 1796.
The last painting on our list, this portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart is the crown jewel of the US Presidents exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It is often called the “Lansdowne Portrait” because it was originally commissioned for British Prime Minister William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne. Several copies exist, including one that was famously saved by First Lady Dolley Madison during the War of 1812 and hangs in the White House today.