Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy
Not much is known about the story behind the Christy painting of the Signing of the Constitution (on September 17, 1787) despite the fact that it is conventionally acclaimed as the best single picture ever created of the American Founding. To be sure, Christy’s rendition is not the only one that portrays the American Founding. Barry Faulkner’s more accessible and competing version of the Signing in the National Archives comes to mind. Faulkner’s 1936 tableau rendition—coinciding with the opening of the National Archives—of the Constitution portrays 25 delegates—three of whom declined to sign, three more who left early—standing in an ancient Roman setting. Faulkner was chosen by John Russell Pope, who was known as the “last of the Romans.” Pope designed both the National Archives and the Jefferson Memorial. The mural depicts Madison delivering the final draft of the Constitution to Washington. By contrast, Christy’s painting makes a great effort at historical authenticity, engages in political interpretation, captures the Convention at work, and brings the American Founders to life.
Thoughts on Christy’s “We the People”
An “allegorical” painting of the Signing—a five feet by seven feet portrayal of the spirit of Liberty, Peace, and Justice—was completed by Christy after two years work in 1937 in conjunction with the celebration of the Sesquicentennial of the Signing of the Constitution. Christy painted this “We the People” rendition in Independence Hall, where at the time the portraits of the Founders hung from the walls, and this undoubtedly inspired his attention to detail; he offered it to the Sesquicentennial Commission as his gift to America. Sources also suggest that he did a lot of his preliminary sketches in Independence Hall during the month of September in order to replicate the lighting of the room.
In the 1930s, Independence Hall served as a collection of Founding material rather than as a replication of original conditions. The bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 changed all that. The photographs on the wall have been removed and placed in the Second Bank in Philadelphia or the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C. Independence Hall has been restored to its original shape and design. But at the time of the Sesquicentennial of the Constitution, Christy’s painting was part of the display at Independence Hall and his “We the People” draft of the Signing is clearly inspired by the presence of the Framers looking down on him from on high.
Christy also received assistance from Roy Bird Cook (1886-1961) whose efforts to preserve the history of the Civil War are recorded at www.libraries.wvu.edu/Roy_Cook_JPG/ in West Virginia. Christy wrote a letter to Cook thanking him for his assistance. With the letter, he included a “historic statement” that helps us understand Christy’s intention in creating the work and his attention to detail.
Christy’s Independence Hall “We the People” painting went over so well, that Congress and President Roosevelt in Spring 1939, invited him to produce a twenty-foot by thirty-foot version that would be hung in the Capitol. The completed painting was unveiled in the Rotunda of the Capitol in May 1940.
Ellipsis Darcane has submitted an interesting recollection of the “We the People” painting that she agreed to let us share:
When my grandmother passed away, I was given the entire contents of her estate. Because I have very little storage and my grandmother’s house is on the opposite side of the country, sadly, I could only keep the most sentimental items. One of the items I chose, was a picture that hung above my grandparent’s fireplace. Growing up in my grandparents’ house, I often gazed upon the beautiful “angel woman” in the picture and created stories of her in my mind.
It wasn’t until six months after my grandmother passed that I discovered my “angel woman” picture had a history. While sorting through several boxes filled with 80+ years worth of letters, cards and family memorabilia my grandmother saved, I came across an envelope marked “Preserve.” Inside was a letter, from a Howard Chandler Christy, addressed to my great-grandfather Edwin M. Schaefer. In the letter, Mr. Christy stated he was giving a signed print of the “We the People” print to my great-grandfather who was a Congressman from Illinois at the time. Mr. Christy also enclosed a historic statement which appears to be the identical letter Mr. Roy Cook was given. I was overjoyed to discover this painting, a favorite since my childhood, turned out to be of historical value.
Thoughts on Christy’s “Signing of the Constitution”
Interpreting an interpretation is a perilous exercise. Nevertheless, Christy’s painting is so vital to the celebration of the American Founding that I owe the contemporary viewer a few thoughts on what Christy is attempting to portray in this commemorative painting.
First, Christy has depicted a certain light in the room. Heavy curtains are open and the outside is visible. During the proceedings of the Convention the curtains were drawn in order to enhance the agreement on secrecy. Now that the solution has been found, we can move from darkness to light.
Second, Christy numbered each of the delegates and this enumeration is available to the public when they view the painting. The first seven mentioned are, with the exception of Franklin, all pro strong central government Federalists: Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, G Morris, R. Morris, and James Wilson are the first seven listed by Christy. They are separated out from their state delegations and are displayed as independent heroes at the Convention. Put differently, Christy places the supporters of a strong general government in perhaps larger than life positions. Madison is seated alone at a table near the podium surrounded by crumpled and uncrumpled notes. Perhaps this symbolizes Madison as the “Notetaker” of the Convention. Washington, surrounded by light, and Franklin, surrounded by books and cane in hand, are there not for what they did at the Convention, but for their heroic position in American life, something that was very much portrayed in the literature at the time of The American Founding.
R. Morris is not there for his contribution at the Convention-he never spoke-but because he was the financier of the American Revolution. Christy links his actions of 1776 as critical to the deliberations of 1787. Madison, Hamilton, G. Morris, and Wilson are clearly the architects of the Constitution as far as Christy is concerned, and this portrait certainly captures a central sense of American self-understanding. But what Hamilton could possibly be whispering to Franklin, both center stage in the painting, challenges the imagination. They rarely spokein fact Hamilton was gone half the time from the Convention and Franklin had Wilson speak on his behalfso one wonders what Christy had in mind. I doubt it had anything to do with the politics of the Convention.
Third, the remaining delegates are seated or standing inconspicuously, for the most part, with their state delegations. But there is a peculiarity that needs explanation. Why are the three delegates from South Carolina raising their arms in apparent salute to Washington, who stands taller than anyone in the room? The most obvious answer is an expression of thanks and respect. But there is a very practical answer. Christy was painting the Founders from the official paintings hanging in Independence Hall. There was no verified official portrait in the 1930s of Pierce Butler of South Carolina and Thomas Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania, so Christy has their faces hidden by the raised arms of the South Carolina delegation. There is also a blur of faces in the corner to the right of Washington. Christy has been very creative: he has placed John Dickinson, whom Christy has listed as the thirty-eighth signer—who actually wasn’t there at the signing because of health reasons, but who had George Read sign on his behalf—disguising the face of Jacob Broom, whom Christy lists as the thirty ninth and last of the signers. There was no official portrait of Broom available in the 1930s.
Fourth, at the very center of the painting is William Jackson. He obviously is critical in Christy’s rendition, yet he lists Jackson as the fortieth and last of the “signers.” Jackson is not a signer; he is the person who recorded the resolutions and votes. So Christy portrays him as important because he recorded the deliberations.
Fifth, there is only one delegation seated at a table—even though all delegations in fact had their own table at the Convention—and that is the Connecticut delegation. There are pieces of crumpled paper on the floor next to Sherman and Johnson. This is in contrast to the other table where Madison looks rather pleased with himself. Now Sherman and Johnson were the authors of the Connecticut Compromise that settled the issue of representation and they worked long and hard for this compromise; the people are represented in the House and the States are represented in the Senate. It is unclear whether or not Christy is praising or criticizing the Connecticut delegation.
Sixth, I’m not sure why Christy gives the honor of signing to the North Carolina delegation, especially since he has given prominence to seven individual members. My best hunch is this: if it weren’t for the Connecticut delegation, the North Carolina delegation wouldn’t have come around to the Connecticut Compromise, and without their support, we wouldn’t have a Constitution whatever the seven movers and shakers wanted.
Behind Washington, Christy has a painting of four flags and a drum. What these symbols represent is, of course, also open to interpretation. One of the three flags is clearly the one supposedly sown by Betsy Ross in 1776 at the request of Washington and this is the flag that has inspired all the other flags that have been adopted by the country. The other three flags and drum are more difficult to identify, but they probably represent the transition from the battle with the British to the discussions taking place in the room. A movement from revolution to constitution.
Philip Cenci’s Recollection of the Christy Painting
“My entire life I have heard the story about this painting from my father who was a witness to the entire process from planning to creation of this painting. As a boy of sixteen, he was an apprentice in The Period Shop which was a woodworking shop on Second Avenue that was run by a combination of German and Italian immigrant artisans…who…made furniture for New York City’s millionaires. My grandfather was an artist who immigrated from Florence and would be contracted by The Period Shop to carve artwork in wood for their furniture. Through this shop and through art contacts, my grandfather knew and worked for Azeglio Pancani.
“My father has retold the story of Pancani and Christy sitting in their apartment on Second Avenue with his father going over sketches for the frame.… The design of the frame was Pancani’s, the design of the eagle was my grandfather’s. My father remembers him arguing for asymmetry of the wingspan of the eagle because an eagle launches ‘into the wind when on the attack’ and it would not appear symmetrical in nature. My father spent countless hours doing the fine sanding of the wood after it had been carved. We still have a smaller model of the eagle that was done by my grandfather.
“Also, some sources claim that the painting was done at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, but my father clearly disputes that because he delivered the frame to Chandler Christy’s studio on Central Park West where he had a two story suite. He actually saw Christy painting a scene of this painting there. The frame was finished at the shop on Second Avenue and then delivered to Christy. My father’s older brother made the trip to Washington to assemble the frame and install it in Washington.”
Time Magazine, September 29, 1941
One of the eternal problems of art rose last week in the U.S. Capitol: the problem of hanging a historical picture. Since historical pictures cover a lot of space, Capitol Architect David Lynn and a special crew of workmen equipped with pulleys, rollers and winches clambered up and down the Capitol’s stairways and through its second-story windows like a swarm of hungry ants tugging at a dead grasshopper. First they removed Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s modest mural, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, size 9 by 14, from its 63-year-old place above the east Grand Stairway just off the Capitol’s lower chamber. Then to the wall they hoisted a new historical whopper: Howard Chandler Christy’s Signing of the United States Constitution, size 20 by 30.
The idea of this monumental swap had been germinating in congressional brains ever since 1935 when New York’s ubiquitous Congressman Sol Bloom, deep in plans for his 1937 Constitution sesquicentennial celebration, discovered that Washington’s Government buildings contained not a single painting commemorating the Constitution’s signing.* Dismayed, Congressman Bloom got his friend, famed Painter and magazine-cover Artist Howard Chandler Christy, a $30,000 commission to paint the subject.
For two years Artist Christy and Congressman Bloom scoured libraries and picture collections looking for likenesses and descriptions of the Constitution’s 39 signers. To make the picture as accurate as possible they gathered mountains of data on costumes and furniture. When Artist Christy actually got around to painting the picture, he knew from warts to shoe buckles how every one of his historical sitters looked, except two. He made up a face for Jacob Broom; he painted Thomas FitzSimons with his face obscured by the upraised arm of a colleague.
When Artist Christy had finished his mighty acreage of oil painting it was propped up in the Capitol’s rotunda for 16 months while a legislative commission cast about for a likely place to hang it. Likeliest places in the Capitol were already occupied by such rival historical scenes as The Battle of Chapultepec and Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. One Capitol picture, however, Carpenter’s dignified First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, failed to fill its wall space. So the commission decided to cart it off to the old Supreme Court chamber and replace it with the space-filling Christy.
* Though Washington, D. C.’s public buildings had no commemorative picture of the Constitutional Convention, other U.S. cities were better supplied. Famous examples: Thomas Prichard Rossiter’s in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall; Junius Brutus Stearns’s in Clarence Dillon’s collection in Far Hills, N. J.; Albert Herter’s in the Wisconsin State Capitol; Joseph Boggs Beale’s in Philadelphia’s Modern Galleries of Arts; John E. Froehlich’s in Harrisburg’s State Museum.
Who is Howard Chandler Christy?
Howard Chandler Christy was born in Morgan County, Ohio on January 10, 1873 into a family that traced its lineage back to the Mayflower Compact. He attended art school in New York, during the 1890s, and by age 25 was painting live military illustrations of the Spanish-American War for several well-known magazines. He became especially famous for his “The Soldier’s Dream” renditions of women. “The Dream” woman became his prototype for “The Christy Girl,” portrayed in his 1900-1921 paintings of a charming, beautiful, educated and emancipated woman. His second wife, Nancy Palmer, was his model for many of the “Christy Girl” paintings.
World War I also elicited patriotic sympathy from Christy: He painted over 40 posters for recruitment, bond sales, victory liberty loans, and other efforts on behalf of the war. His 1919 Victory Liberty Loan poster, for example, portrays a “Christy Girl” proclaiming support for “Americans All,” next to an “Honor Roll” listing fourteen names: “Du Bois, Smith, O’Brien, Cejka, Haucke, Pappandrikopolous, Andrassi, Villotto, Levy, Turovich, Kowalski, Chriczanevicz, Knutson, and Gonzales.” “Americans All,” indeed, both then and now!
During the 1920s, Christy turned from magazine illustrations and patriotic themes to personal portraiture. He became associated with the celebrity circle and painted a wide range of people from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Benito Mussolini. In the mid 1930s, he received several invitations to interpret critical historical events and these, in turn, led in 1940 to the unveiling of his most famous painting, “The Signing of the Constitution.” He also painted a number of religiously oriented posters on behalf of the World War II effort. Christy died in New York in 1952 at the age of 80.
* This account of the work of Howard Chandler Christy is based in large part on material available in the National Archives in Washington D.C. and The Special Collections and College Archives at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania where the Christy Papers are housed. I also want to thank Dennis L. Boyles for permission to reprint the letter from Christy to Cook as well as the Historic Statement that came with it. Thanks to James Philip Head for Christy’s invitee list for unveiling of the painting. And thanks to Philip Cenci for sharing his story about his father and grandfather. The thoughts on the painting are my own.
Notes: Only 39 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention are pictured in the Christy painting.
Also not included are the 13 delegates who left the convention:
Oliver Ellsworth (Connecticut),
William Houston (Georgia),
William L. Pierce (Georgia),
Luther Martin (Maryland),
John F. Mercer (Maryland),
Caleb Strong (Massachusetts),
William C. Houston (New Jersey),
John Lansing, Jr. (New York),
Robert Yates (New York),
William R. Davie (North Carolina),
Alexander Martin (North Carolina),
James McClurg (Virginia), and
George Wythe (Virginia).