The Signing of the American Constitution

by Albert Herter

Constitutional Convention
Signing of the Constitution, Albert Herter (1915) Wisconsin State Historical Society

Artist’s Biography

Albert Herter was born in New York in 1871 and died in 1950. He and his wife are well known for their woven tapestries of Manhattan. Their son, Christian Herter, was Secretary of State in the Eisenhower Administration. Four of Herter’s painted murals hang in the Supreme Court Room of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. The mural on the north wall shows the signing of the Magna Carta (with son Christian holding on to the collar of the dog in the foreground); the mural on the west wall replicates Augustus listening to the pleas under Roman law; and the mural on the south wall portrays the trial of Chief Oshkosh. We are particularly interested in the fourth mural, which is actually the first mural one sees after making an entrance to the Supreme Court Room. This is Herter’s rendition of the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The painting hangs above the place where the seven members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court sit to hand down their decisions.

The Painting & The Delegates

In contrast to the earlier paintings by Stearns and Rossiter, and to the later paintings by Christy and Glanzman, Herter’s depiction shows only 19 of the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution. There are nine to the left of Washington, seated in the “rising sun” chair, and nine to the right of the General. Of these 19 signers, it is virtually impossible to identify six, because they stand with their backs to the viewer, or at angles that obscure their facial profiles. The viewer’s gaze lingers on those delegates whose faces or attitudes are most easily read. Of these, only five delegates are clearly identifiable:

  1. George Washington in the rising sun chair.
  2. Benjamin Franklin on Washington’s right and in the front left of the painting, talking with two other delegates.
  3. James Wilson, sitting at a desk to the left of Washington and below shadowy portraits, perhaps of the Framers, hung on the wall.
  4. James Madison, with coat on arm, situated to the left of Washington and in the right foreground of the painting.
  5. A delegate who looks like Alexander Hamilton, in conversation with James Madison.

Is that Thomas Jefferson to Washington’s left talking with an unidentifiable delegate? Jefferson, of course, was not present at the convention; he was then serving as Ambassador to France.

Note that while this depiction of the Convention places Washington at the center of the action, it does not elevate Washington above the other signers.