Historic painting of Saratoga battle was topic of concern during Capitol insurrection
Categories: News, Saratoga County
One of the most terrifying images of last Wednesday’s Capitol riot, for many, was the picture of a Florida man carrying Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern as he waved to photographers.
The man with the lectern, Adam Johnson, 36, has now been charged. But the locals who saw the photo last week may not have been as concerned about the lectern as they were about the 12 by 18 foot oil painting right behind it.
The 1821 artwork, Surrender of General Burgoyne, is one of four works of art by historical painter John Trumbull that proudly hang in the Capitol rotunda. However, this painting in the photo holds a special place in the hearts of local historians – it shows the aftermath of the Second Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777 and shows British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne handing his sword over to US General Horatio Gates. It was the first time in history that a British army had surrendered. And now that painting is intertwined with modern history.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Sean Kelleher, Saratoga city historian. “But there were tears of concern that there are a lot of important historical elements in the US Capitol. And you don’t want to lose any of them. That was my fear. And when you sit at home and see these pictures, you are completely helpless. Obviously, that kind of insurrection worries you about democracy. But there is also a real care of the administration and elements in this Capitol. “
In 1817, Congress commissioned Trumbull to produce four paintings for the Capitol. In addition to his Saratoga scene, which actually took place in what is now the Schuylerville, Trumbull’s three other paintings of the War of Independence included the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the resignation of General George Washington from his commission and, in particular, his painting signing the Declaration of Independence.
“It is really a great honor that something that happens in our community is so important that it is included in this place,” said Kelleher.
The painting itself has gone through many iterations. At the current sword handover site, opened in 2019 by the National Parks Service and other organizations, a type of sculpture of the painting, a bas-relief, gives visitors the chance to see what the painting looks like while looking at the landscape of the scene in which the event has been discontinued.
Nor was Kelleher the only person on the ground concerned about the Capitol’s great historical bond with Saratoga. Saratoga National Historical Park’s interpretive ranger Eric Schnitzer also feared what might happen with the handover of General Burgoyne last week.
“I saw the photo of the man who was removing the podium,” said Schnitzer. “And I noticed it right away because I have radar for the War of Independence paintings. Every time I look inside the rotunda photos, I do a comprehensive scan to see if I can see the Saratoga picture, hoping the other paintings won’t get damaged. As far as I know, none of these paintings was harmed. “
While the painting itself was more of an atypically romanticized version of the British surrender on that day in 1777, Tritzer said, Trumbull’s work is important not only to the capital region, but to the United States as a whole.
“As the history painter of the early American Republic, John Trumbull was one of the most important people,” said Schnitzer. “Some would probably say the most important thing.”
After reading a New York Times interview with former Capitol architect Barbara Wolanin, who was stuck to her television last week watching the events, Schnitzer couldn’t help but feel alike.
“What could happen to these priceless works of art? You are not defended. You are open. They are just canvas mounted on a wall. Anyone can do something about it. She was just absolutely scared. And I felt that too, not like her, because it wasn’t my collection. But of course I have a weakness for this Saratoga painting. “